Two of the most memorable exhibits at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are multimedia installations dedicated to the songs “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Jokerman.” At the first, visitors to the 29,000-square-foot museum and archive can see the notebooks with Dylan’s original lyrics, as well as how he has changed lines of the 1975 song as he’s performed it over the years. The second lets viewers trace key lyrics through 10 drafts of the 1984 “Jokerman,” plus see video of Dylan playing a furious version with a punk band that year on Late Night with David Letterman. Together, they offer a view of Dylan as both a meticulous pen-and-paper songwriter and an improvising performer who keeps finding new meaning in his compositions onstage.
Most museum-style exhibits about the history of pop music are based on stuff – outfits that a performer wore, instruments that he or she played, even, in Elvis Presley’s case, the house in which he lived. They’re museums for entertainers, in all their glittery glory. The Bob Dylan Center, which officially opens on May 10, tries to offer fans more insight – much of it based on a 100,000-item archive acquired from Dylan himself for an estimated $20 million and now owned by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. (The foundation also provides funding for the center and the next-door Woody Guthrie Center, both of which are part of the Tulsa-based American Song Archives.)
In the entryway of the Dylan Center is an iron gate made by the artist himself, who is said to be otherwise uninvolved in the project and didn’t attend a preview weekend that featured an invite-only performance by Mavis Staples on May 5 and public concerts by Patti Smith and Elvis Costello on May 6 and May 7, respectively. Visitors enter the center through a room showing immersive films that put Dylan’s early years in historical context. Through it lie two floors of exhibits heavy on video and audio, which visitors can hear on portable players they can activate at various touchpoints.
“We always wanted this to be very interactive,” says Steven Jenkins, the Dylan Center’s director. “We don’t want this to be a dusty archive, but to bring it to life.”
Downstairs, a permanent exhibit outlines the story of Dylan’s career, amid six installations dedicated to specific songs – currently “Tangled,” “Jokerman,” “Chimes of Freedom,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Man in Me,” and “Not Dark Yet.” A jukebox curated by Elvis Costello offers a selection of Dylan tracks and covers, as well as music that influenced him, and a mocked-up studio uses photos and audio to tell the story of some of a his most famous recordings. (The evolution of “Like a Rolling Stone,” over two sets of sessions, could be its own drama, about a musician searching for the sound his lyrics seem to demand.) Upstairs, the center offers video and audio context on dozens of artifacts, while a space devoted to the work of other artists is currently showing photographs by Jerry Schatzberg, who took the portrait of Dylan on the cover of Blonde on Blonde, among other iconic images.
Some of the most fascinating items on display are letters, including several from presidents as well as a rejection note from Esquire. (Dylan either had the foresight to save his correspondence or he was just something of a packrat.) Some of the incoming mail, like the get-well cards sent to him after his 1966 motorcycle accident, show just how large Dylan loomed in the sixties and seventies. But the most interesting documents also shed some light on a creative process that Dylan himself has at least recently been unwilling, or perhaps unable, to describe.
“It shows that these songs don’t just spring fully formed,” Jenkins says. “Until the bootleg series” – the releases devoted to Dylan’s alternate takes and unreleased songs – “we hadn’t seen this.” (As time goes on, Jenkins says, the center will swap in different items from the archive, which is also available by appointment to accredited researchers.) The museum focuses on creativity, and it implicitly encourages visitors to engage with Dylan’s work instead of simply admiring the man behind it.
At least prominent visitor was impressed. “In terms of the subject, I don’t think you could do more,” said Elvis Costello in an impromptu interview with several journalists at the Center hours before his concert. To contrast the Dylan Center with other museums, Costello told a story about a years-ago visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where curators let him briefly play one of Doc Watson’s guitars in a part of the building that wasn’t accessible to the public – “but Billy Ray Cyrus’ sneakers were out front.”
That night at Cain’s Ballroom, Costello played two Dylan songs: “I Threw It All Away” and “Like A Rolling Stone.” It was a solid end to a weekend of music that started on May 5 with a performance at the same venue from Mavis Staples, who ended her fiery show with “The Weight” and “I’ll Take You There.” On May 6, Patti Smith started her show with Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and later played “One Too Many Mornings” and “Wicked Messenger,” in addition to her own songs.
It was an effective way to show that while Dylan’s songs might merit a place in a museum – along with the Nobel Prize for literature, which he won in 2016 – they’re hardly consigned to one. Dylan still explores them himself, and at his concert in Tulsa last month, which leaned heavily on material from his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, he didn’t mention the Dylan Center – or even swing by while he was in town. Instead, historian Douglas Brinkley told The Washington Post, he went to see the opening game of the Tulsa Drillers minor league baseball team.