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Musical Culture

A life surrounding African American music inspires curator of new museum

From The Ichabod - Winter 2020

Dina Bennett grew up in Topeka, Kansas, around blues and gospel music, or whatever her father’s band Roland Bennett and the Rockin’ Whalers were playing that evening.

Dina Bennett“I came from a musical home,” said Bennett, ba ’90. “My dad is a musician, and he and his brother had a band. They recorded a couple of 45 records, and they played throughout Topeka and Lawrence.”

Her dad, Dick “Sweet Root” Bennett, played the harmonica and bass and her uncle, Roland Bennett, was the lead and saxophonist. At the age of 7, she followed in her family’s musical footsteps and attended Melody Brown Fun Factory, a local musical camp formerly held on the Washburn University campus.

“They saw some ability in me and they offered to give me piano lessons for free,” she said of the life-changing moment. She started playing in her church, school and recitals while also picking up the clarinet.

While her life is far from the piano recitals she held as a child, Bennett is living her dream today as curatorial director of the National Museum of African American Music, a new museum set to open in the summer of 2020 in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. When finished, it will be the only museum that looks into all of the music genres created and influenced by African Americans.

“This museum shows the legacy of African American music from its very beginnings,” she said. “It covers blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop, and visitors will not only find out about these genres, but also learn about the experience of the music and how it permeates society.”

After earning her degree from Washburn University, she earned her master’s from Kansas State University and her doctoral degree from Indiana University in a field many are not familiar with: ethnomusicology, which is the study of music of different cultures. She completed her dissertation studying the revitalization of the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District and the creation of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. She knew when her current position opened it would be a culmination of not only all she has worked for, but what she grew up around.

“I studied ethnomusicology and African American and African Diaspora studies because I wanted to understand more about the people, why they created the music, and I wanted to be in the field and weave the stories around it and preserve the material culture” she said.

Building a museum from the ground up – not only bricks and mortar, but also the collection of artifacts and information – hasn't been an easy task. Bennett said the process has been unlike anything she’s ever done because she has always worked in previously established museums. Today, she works with many people involved in the constructing of a museum – exhibit designers, construction, development, and marketing managers, as well as fabricators. The NMAAM curatorial team has worked to be intentional in the designs of the exhibits and has made sure the information and artifacts are authentic and accurate. This fall, the team went through the final design approval of the galleries – proofreading and suggesting revisions with a team of renowned historians and ethnomusicology experts. The museum doesn’t just focus on the musicians, but also the creatives in the music business industry.

National Museum of African American Music

The work completed now will be on the walls and seen by patrons for years, so as one of the experts in the field, she leads a team of curators to make sure the information and displays are correct. For example, one of the interactive pieces in the religious music gallery will allow visitors to sing with a gospel choir – Bobby Jones and his choir – through green screen technology.

“We are working with a media team who are not African American, so there is a learning curve there,” she said. “We stay in step with them because we have to guide the material and storyline.”

Working for a museum is not new to her. Before she came to the National Museum of African American Music, she was the associate director of operations and programs for the Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn University where she was able to get experience in museum administration. She also previously worked as the education director for the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi.

“I think this is everything I’ve worked for, this is what I’m trained to do, and have lived and breathed,” she said. “I have not only studied it, but I am a tradition-bearer of the culture.”

Once the museum opens, the curatorial team will continue to work on the rotating exhibits, obtaining accreditation and writing grants for new exhibits.

“Hopefully this museum will thrive to become a cultural center for African American music and culture,” Bennett said. “As an ethnomusicologist and musician, the legacy we are leaving our children is really engrained in me.”

The Ichabod magazine fall 2020

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2020 fall edition online and look for it in mailboxes in October.

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