When news broke in 2016 that Bob Dylan had given his vast archive of recordings and artifacts to the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa, people were taken aback. Why was this cultural trove going there, of all places?
Now we know the answer. That initial cache of Dylanalia has become the cornerstone of an entire museum: the Bob Dylan Center. Recently I asked the singer-songwriter, who is 80, why he’d chosen Tulsa. “There’s more vibrations on the coasts, for sure,” he explained. “But I’m from Minnesota and I like the casual hum of the heartland.”
The BDC will certainly hum. When it opens in May, Dylan’s visage—on the building’s three-story facade—will gaze down on downtown Tulsa’s popular Guthrie Green (named for Oklahoman Woody Guthrie). But that isn’t to suggest the museum is a vanity project. It’s indicative, instead, of the cultural moment, a time when our storytellers and renegade visionaries deserve recognition and respect. It’s a time to marvel at the fact that a footloose Midwesterner with a guitar, who spent 60 years changing minds and changing the culture with his music, actually went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Yes, there’s the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, which is impressive but modest. The Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle is partly a shrine to Jimi Hendrix, yet it’s fueled not by scholarship as much as pizzazz. Elvis Presley’s Graceland draws over half a million visitors a year, though it’s more spangle than substance. Now comes an institution—a 29,000-square-foot edifice designed by Olson Kundig—devoted to a living musician. And it is a living monument: an entrancing, immersive, take-you-by-the-lapels destination that doubles as a campus for learning and exploring. The BDC doesn’t just enshrine the artist; it celebrates the formational figures who made him what he is.
The center—a high-tech vessel holding the man’s oeuvre and an overview of the man—will be the spiritual home of Dylan, a relentless performer who is forever on the road. When I mentioned that his tour bus was both man cave and tree house, Dylan’s response was typically cryptic: “Man cave, woman cave, a cave is a cave. Dark as a dungeon. They don’t travel well, no wheels. And the tree house, that’s not it either. Neither one can move my bus. I try to leave it where we can get it quick. Sometimes we use it when I’m not on tour.” Someday, perhaps, that magic bus may be parked in Tulsa.
The Dylan Center isn’t open yet. So let me give you a taste. The spine of the place is the first-floor gallery, which will transport museumgoers through the bard’s life and career. Visitors will feel swaddled in a cinematic Dylan “experience.” They will linger in a virtual recording studio. They will be dazzled by galaxies of ephemera. A listening booth will resonate with the sounds of Chuck Berry, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, and others who infused the imagination of Robert Zimmerman while he was a student at Minnesota’s Hibbing High. There will be a jolting audiovisual trip back to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—when Dylan blasphemously “went electric.”