Aretha Franklin exhibition debuts with eye toward her legacy
The Detroit museum that hosted Aretha Franklin’s public visitations after her death is again holding space for her — this time with an exhibition featuring photographs, videos and the red shoes she wore at the first funeral viewing that drew global attention.
Billed as a “tribute to the Queen of Soul,” “THINK” opened to the public this week at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and runs until Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The show is a prelude what the museum envisions is a larger, long-term exhibit that would debut late next year or in early 2020. And both could be a proving ground for a permanent museum honoring Franklin and her family.
“My aunt used to always talk about having a Franklin family museum,” said Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens. “That’s not on the immediate horizon, but I thought this would be a good start to it.”
The first show aims to capture and celebrate Franklin’s life in an intimate space that’s designed to change and offer surprises over time — much like its subject did.
“This mirrors the way she was — keep on adding things to a collection, giving people something different to look forward to — just goes along with who she was as a person,” Owens said. “She just always wanted to change, keep herself relevant.”
In addition to the candy-apple-red shoes, the exhibition includes a replica of the matching red dress she wore at the visitation. It also features video from various performances and appearances. Visitors are greeted by a large video monitor with three clips playing on a loop, including her scene-stealing turn singing “Think” in the film “The Blues Brothers.”
The images and artifacts span her life — among them a photo of her birth home in Memphis, Tenn., a framed copy of the first record she cut in her longtime home of Detroit and a close-up shot of her singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. It also includes images captured during her visitations, funeral and interment.
Museum officials say the cultural landmark takes great pride in hosting the exhibition, as well as maintaining a connection with Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at 76. The museum says roughly 31,000 people came through to see her during the Aug. 29-30 visitation period.
Given how recently she died, museum officials say it was important to capture and present some of those elements “of residual grief and love” for the inaugural exhibit.
“We’re trying to continue from the viewing the emotional experience we witnessed — see the emotional connection people had with the Queen and allow people to feel that,” said George Hamilton, the Wright’s interim CEO.
The feelings came rushing back to Gloria Easley, 68, who came from Chicago last week with her sister. The women thought the exhibition had already opened to the public, but Hamilton welcomed them nonetheless.
“When I came in and walked through the door, I was a bit taken aback,” said Easley, who said she spoke by phone on numerous occasions with Franklin’s late father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and met the singer at gospel trailblazer Mahalia Jackson’s 1972 funeral in Chicago. “I got a little emotional, having flashbacks listening to her voice.”
Easley, who first “fell in love” with the young Franklin’s voice on radio broadcasts of her father’s services, told Hamilton that the exhibition hits the right notes.
“You’re doing it in the right way and for the right reasons,” she told him.
For the current and planned future exhibition, the museum is working with the Franklin family on creating something that encompasses her life and its impact.
“Aretha was obviously important to the world and important to Detroit,” said museum board member Kelly Major Green. “We want to be able to express that appropriate and commensurate with the legacy that it is.”
Franklin’s niece believes it’s a great way to start sharing that legacy. She adds that the exhibitions and the public’s response to them can help the family determine if a permanent museum “is a viable idea.”
“It’s just really good to see my aunt’s dream come to fruition,” Owens said.