The Banjo Project – A Digital Museum

Who here remembers the 2011 PBS documentary, Give Me The Banjo, which shared the rich history and culture of our one uniquely American instrument, narrated by Steve Martin. Produced by Marc Fields, the film combined performance video with discussion and commentary from artists, historians, researchers, and instrument builders, and was a big hit when it was first shown.

Fields has since continued in his fascination with the banjo, and has been working on a way to exhibit his more than 300 hours of video on the subject in a way that preserves it for posterity while also making it easily accessible for both academics and the general public.

What he has come up with is called The Banjo Project, which he envisions as a digital museum, which will hopefully be available by the summer of 2019. It will allow anyone with a computer and a connection to the internet to learn about the difficult and often tragic story of how the banjo was born in northern and western Africa, and migrated to the America’s in the memories of enslaved peoples torn from their native lands and sold to traders that brought them to the “new world.”

From there it found its way into folk, jazz, and popular music across the Caribbean islands and into both central and north America. Such cultural shifts have become an extremely popular topic for scholarly research over the past decade or so, and Fields is combining much of it in his searchable database of articles and information about our humble banjo.

This will not be a site dedicated to any style of banjo music, but rather to the instrument itself, and all the musical formats in which it is, or has been used. The development and evolution of its many forms can be studied using the many 3D scans that the Museum curators envision will be part of the project.

And like any museum, the work of The Banjo Project will be ongoing, with new media added as it becomes available. It all got started with a grant from Mass Humanities in 2010, and support for Fields’ work from Emerson University, who will also house the Project on their servers. Now they are trying to raise additional funding to complete the work with hopes of an online launch in June of 2019.

A Kickstarter page has been posted with a goal of reaching $25,000 in donations by mid-November, and it looks like they will need some help getting there. All contributions are tax-deductible, and The Banjo Project should be a valuable resource going forward.

Here’s a short film they have made to explain what they are doing…

You can see the sample pages Marc describes in the video here. To help with a Kickstarter donation, that site can also be found online.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.