Friday, May 22, 2009

Sustaining the King

I've had an up and down relationship with Graceland and this most recent visit continues that trend. There is no denying that Elvis was a dynamic person, had a huge impact on music and pop culture, and that he continues to be an icon of American culture. The reason why he continues to be such a mainstay, though, is because of Jack Soden, the chief executive officer of Elvis Presley Enterprises. He's been involved with the site and the larger corporate management of the Elvis brand since 1982. His background is in financial planning and he has put his considerable skills to work in building the Elvis brand and managing the legacy of Elvis' image so that they continue to build market share.

This solid financial foundation is something most historic sites would kill for. It is also something that Elvis never achieved in his lifetime (he wasn't much of one for long term financial planning). But while this aspect of the Elvis image is sitting pretty, the physical site of Graceland has loads of untapped potential that no amount of financial planning and marketing will unlock.

They are so savvy with their branding that even the renovations at the Heartbreak Hotel incorporate Elvis' personal motto of "Taking Care of Business"

For a business that makes so much money (mostly from licensing, which also builds brand strength), I don't understand why so much of Graceland is done on the cheap. Last time I was there I thought that the cheap carnival feel of the strip mall that serves as the visitor center/gift shops was sort of an appropriate approach to the Elvis' legacy. He came from a working class background and loved kitsch, so why not celebrate that? The only reason to denigrate that kind of experience is if you're being an elitist about social class, right?

Dr. Spencer Crew and class loaded into the shuttle at the visitor center on their way to Graceland.

In touring the house, I was both really impressed and really disturbed by what I saw. The audio tour is done exceptionally well. It is available in several foreign languages (and this pulls in a considerable international audience) and managed in such a way so that you could hear as little or as much as you wanted. It incorporated details about the room, memories of friends and family, and a little bit of the history of Elvis' life.

Dr. Crew's audio tour had problems at the beginning and the staff at Graceland was incredibly helpful in resolving his problems (and polite about it too).

What I was really disturbed by were their conservation practices. While I am definitely on the adaptive use end of the museum spectrum, they took things further than I was comfortable with. It looked like that rather than UV protection and inert mylar, they were using polyvinyl coverings for much of the furniture (which off-gases and destroys what it encapsulates). Now, I don't know this for a fact and Dr. Crew suggested that I ask them if that's what they are using rather than assuming...but it sure didn't look like mylar.

In addition to that (and supporting my non-conservation thesis), all of Elvis' clothing were on department store style mannequins. That's what poor museums do when they have to make the most of their resources. For an industry that is making mad cash, why are they doing things on the cheap? They can afford to buy conservation forms, so why do they still have the cheap stuff? The result for me was that rather than being delighted by the Elvis aesthetic, I thought it was a bit tawdry. I was also strongly concerned about the longevity of the material culture on site. The image of Elvis can live on in an ephemeral way, but the material culture of his life is a very important aspect to conserve.

Now, most people probably wouldn't notice those details. I know that I see museums very differently than your average visitor. I think that it would be interesting to do a survey of visitors to get their impressions of the experience and get genuine feedback on how successful the site is in telling the Elvis story and honoring his legacy. Speaking of his legacy, another aspect that disturbed me was that they nickle-and-dime you for every aspect of the experience there. This does not seem to be in keeping with Elvis' ideals. Now, they make a lot of money and I think that's the goal there, but it adds to the cheap carnival atmosphere.

The design of the site leads to a cattle corral feel as they herd you through Graceland.

Elvis' legacy of charity seems to be in contradiction to some of the practices at Graceland. They have a plan for constructing new facilities and say that they are going to construct an entirely new Graceland experience and make things more upscale. I'll withhold judgment until they roll out what that will look like. I'd really like to see some quality museum exhibits, though. What is there now is really in the style of the amateur "stuff" exhibits of volunteer museums (there I go being elitist again). They have great artifacts, but they seem content to just shove a bunch of them in a case with little or no interpretation. The labels that they do have tend to be packed with entirely too much text and try to tell way too much on a single label (also in the style of amateur exhibitry).

Fellow classmate John George looks up at the all of the artifacts that are plastered in every surface in the former racquetball court. In addition to very high light levels (a conservation issue), the visible storage exhibit technique doesn't completely work here.

I suppose that my main problem here is that the site (be it a music museum, house museum, shrine, what-have-you) does not seem very professional. They do phenomenal financial management, but have kept so focused on controlling the branding image that I think they have shut out the potential of having a real museum or allowing for some real history on the site. They do not allow scholars to have access to their archives (other corporate entities do this by incorporating restrictions that ensures genuine scholarship as opposed to salacious, tabloid misuse). They don't so educational programming. And this is a point that I think bothers me most. After a recent visit to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, I don't understand why Graceland isn't further leveraging their brand by doing something that is experiential and educational on site. They could link it to Elvis' musical roots or his evolving legacy. It could be part charity, part outreach, and also make the Elvis brand relevant in real time as opposed to in the past. It could make Elvis Presley Enterprises cutting edge as a cultural institution as opposed to being a typical corporate entity. The brand identity is sustainable, I would love to see them implement sustainable tourism (especially sustainable heritage tourism) strategies at Graceland.

Maybe that's a direction they will be heading in with this new facility that they plan to break ground on in five years. I'm hoping that they begin to staff Graceland with cutting edge and creative museum professionals so that this site can contribute to Elvis' legacy in an evolving cultural way that also promotes quality of life (instead of just bring in money for the corporation). After being incredibly critical of what they do, I want to take a moment to comment on something that I think they do very well. This site will probably always be a shrine in some respects. I love that they allow fans to leave tributes at the graveside. They take in flowers (both real and fake) and other items and place them along the perimeter of the graves until nature takes its toll on them. This allows for fans to feel a very real connection to the site and it does play into a cultural tradition of grieving. I wish that they were doing more than just this, but no matter how they change, I hope that they always keep this part of their operation.

In the meditation garden, visitors get to honor the dead and even donate tributes of flowers and nicknacks that the staff then place around the Presley family graves.

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