Tuesday, November 4, 2014

From Jenny Lind to Lady Gaga

Title: Jenny Lind
Year: Circa 1850
Material: Cast Lead
Creator: Unknown
Collection: American Swedish Historical Museum

Today, popular music is a big business. Artists make records, they go on tour, perform on television, promote their albums through interviews and printed reviews. Granted, things are changing in our digital age, but there is still a pop music industrial complex. It happens on multiple levels: the industry uses its stars to sell amorphous things, like an ideology or a lifestyle, but they also look to sell tangible items: albums, concert tickets, and merchandise.

To be sure, I’m a consumer of the later. As a teenager, the concert-going experience wasn't complete until I had a new Radiohead t-shirt or Ani DiFranco signed poster in my hands.  I guess I've thought this was a relatively recent phenomenon. Sure, I knew about the crazes around the Beatles and Elvis, but as I realized during this week’s visit to the American Swedish Historical Museum (ASHM), the culture of musical celebrity has a much longer history. Long before Beatlemania, there was Lindmania.  

ASHM’s Jenny Lind Room is dedicated to one of the most renowned vocalists of the 19th century. By the age of ten, Lind was performing in operas across Europe and developed a reputation as the “Swedish Nightingale.”  Her popularity exploded when she completed a 93-stop American tour, managed by showman P.T. Barnum. Public enthusiasm was so strong that the American press coined the term "Lind mania". An early philanthropist, Lind donated her concert earnings, over $350,000, to American and Swedish charities.
The gallery contains objects that both belonged to Lind or represent her talent, as well as items from the Jenny Lind brand of merchandise. One item that caught my attention was a 10 inch tall cast lead sculpture of Lind. Unlike the colorfully painted porcelain statues and bright artistic portrayals of the singer throughout the space, this one was heavy and dark.

The statue was given to the museum by Lennea Farr in 1947. While no specifics are provided, Lennea is listed among many contributors noted by the “Reports of the Curator” section of the American Swedish Historical Museum: Yearbook 1947. I found this 120-page document online. If you’re curious, you can find it here. This object is displayed in a square glass case, alongside several other Lind artifacts, including a cigar box, a wooden hand-held fan, glass bottles, sunglasses, and two additional statues. Large marble busts of Lind and her husband, once owned by the couple, also stand on pedestals nearby. In an informal museum voice, the object label notes that “statues that like one were cast around of the time of Jenny Lind’s tour of America and sold as souvenirs.”

Lind's left hand cast in bronze

MJ and Bubbles by Jeff Koons
Another case displays the Jenny Lind Girandole Set, a collection of 19th century dishes and serving ware. This is also where I found the most surprising Lind-related object: a bronze cast of Jenny Lind’s left hand. Immediately I thought of Michael Jackson’s white gloves,and the life-sized sculpture by Jeff Koons. Still, in some way, this hand, its material, and the fact that its a severed body part, feels a bit more peculiar. I wasn't able to find much information about the hand, so I don’t know if it was also mass produced like the statue. Let’s say that it was a concert merch item, for a moment. After shaking the hand of a celebrity, I've heard people say “I’ll never wash my hand again,” but this takes it to another level. It actually invites a fan to take home their pop idol’s hand. And assumedly hold it. Forever. Borderline stalker-ish, if you ask me. If any modern icon had something like this, it'd be Lady Gaga.

At any rate, the lead statue, and other objects on display provide some insight into Lind’s life and aesthetic tastes, and allude to her distinctive cultural contribution as a Swedish vocalist, as well as her wide-spread celebrity.  This object is important to anyone interested in Swedish heritage, music history, lead sculpture, and the evolution of popular culture.

To better understand the significance of this object, one could start by reading more about Jenny Lind and exploring images of her other merchandise online, like the doll kit pictured here. She appears to have established quite a brand. It might also be helpful to listen to and read about the music of Sweden, both today, and during Lind’s glory days. There are also some interesting books about the culture of celebrity and "mania." Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, Fame, and Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Edward Berenson might be a place to start. What’s more, can watch, The Lady Gagas of the 19th Century, an hour-long lecture by University of Chicago historian Amy Lippert, here.

Individuals with a staunch opposition to celebrity culture, or “worldly” possessions may not be interested in this object, but it is unlikely that these types of folks visit museums very often, if ever. Generally, I feel that this object represents ideas that are relatable to almost anyone. Even young children understand the idea of fame—through superheroes, Disney Princesses, and Elmo.

An opposing point of view might argue the this object, and the exhibition, doesn’t do Jenny Lind justice. It doesn’t answer questions like ‘What did Jenny Lind’s voice sound like?’ and ‘What other types of music were popular in 19th century Sweden?’ Although ASHM has obtained an extensive sheet music collection, “due to the fragility of paper artifacts,” wall text notes, “much of the collection can only be exhibited for short periods of time,” and none is currently on display. Preserving this delicate collection may be important, however the museum could display reproductions of sheet music that would complement the Lind artifacts and offer deeper insight into Sweden’s musical heritage.

Moreover, to encourage more visitor engagement, the museum could consider including additional cultural artifacts that would enhance the Lind objects. For instance, despite the fact that there may not be any audio recordings of Lind, I would expect there are later recordings of other Swedish operatic performances, as well as other genres of Swedish music that ASHM could acquire and integrate into the gallery. Adding a music listening station to the exhibit would provide an interactive component, which is noticeably lacking in the gallery, and may help deepen a visitor’s understanding of the collection, who it commemorates, and how it relates to a larger Swedish narrative. Likewise, the objects in the room do nothing to illuminate Lind’s passion for helping others. ‘What causes did Lind financially support?’ ‘How did these charities employ the funds?’ ‘Did Lind develop personal relationships with these groups?’ If this room is truly to honor Jenny Lind, it might be useful to also present objects and ideas that explore her musical and philanthropic life.

These days, it’s usually big news (and good press) when pop idols contribute to or serve as ambassadors for charitable causes. Check out this list of last year’s 25 most charitable celebrities, including Elton John, Paul McCartney, Bono and Madonna. Meanwhile, I’ll keep scouring the internet for bronze casts of Lady Gaga’s left hand. None have turned up yet, but I did find this.


  1. I really enjoyed this post! I also had not realized that material culture of musical stars extended beyond recent times. I wonder what merchandise Bach or Mozart had as well? I really like your comparison between Jenny Lind and Lady Gaga. When I saw the hand at the museum, I thought that it was very strange, especially since she was famous for her singing and not piano-playing, for instance. But putting it into context of a star singer today made it much easier to comprehend (if not understand, why would you want a cast of someone's hand?). It also made those people of the past not seem so different from us today. Thanks for your post!

  2. Wow, it's really interesting to think about obsessions with musical artists happening as early as the 19th century! Could you imagine this cast of Lind's hand just sitting in a parlor, as a conversation piece and statement to those entering about the families notable connections? Yup, still pretty strange. I agree that a listening station would enhance this exhibition and I would also be interested in more information there about music or specifically opera in Sweden.