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National Guitar Museum Travels The US, Searching For A Home

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PITTSBURGH -- Like a rolling stone, a traveling guitar museum is searching for a home.

The National Guitar Museum features ancient stringed instruments from Persia, the first electric guitar, and ultra-modern experiments that would be at home in a sci-fi movie. But the recession of recent years hasn't been kind to museums and nonprofits, so the founders decided to go on tour before putting down roots.

"Our initial plan was to take it on the road for five years, and then kind of find out which city was the most hospitable," said H.P. Newquist, a Connecticut writer and former editor of Guitar magazine who is director of the traveling museum.

The question of where the collection will end up is still evolving, Newquist said, adding that they want to find a spot with "a thriving arts community, a thriving musical community." The exhibit is scheduled to travel to Virginia, Massachusetts, Idaho and New Jersey over the next three years, and possibly more places, he said, and has already been seen in Connecticut, Orlando and Louisville. Experts on museums say it's an unusual model for finding a home.

The exhibit is currently in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Science Center, where on a recent afternoon young children scampered over the world's largest guitar, a 40-foot version of the famous Gibson Flying V from the late 1950s. Other visitors plucked at an amplified Diddly Bow, a one-string instrument used by some blues musicians in the South that traces its origin back to Africa.

One visitor was ecstatic over the experience.

"Simply amazing," said Derrick Weyand, who is based at Hanscom Air Force Base outside of Boston, and was visiting Pittsburgh with his family. Weyand, who played guitar as a youth, watched as his young daughter fawned over a guitar that's available to hold. "She's never really seen a guitar and now she's all over it," he said.

The exhibit features famous rock-n-roll classics like an early fender Stratocaster, but also many surprises. There's a 1931 Frying Pan aluminum guitar, considered to be the first electric steel guitar ever produced. The inspiration? Guitarists in popular Hawaiian music bands of the era who needed more volume to be heard on stage.

Dennis Bateman, who's in charge of exhibits at Carnegie, said the center decided to try the show in an attempt to reach a different audience.

"It was sort of fusion between art and history and science," Bateman said, adding that more people than usual are attending on their own, without children.

Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, agreed that guitars are of great interest. But he added that every successful museum needs a strong base of support from corporate and individual donors, and that state, federal and private donations have dropped in recent years.

"The question is, what's the sustainable model? Every idea does not deserve a museum," Bell said.

Newquist said there are about 200 instruments in the collection, with a wish list of about 50 more. About 70 are on display in the traveling exhibit.

"What we really wanted to do is show how the instrument itself evolved, and what its impact has been on the culture," he said, whether that be through country western, heavy metal, pop, classical or jazz music.

And it's a hands-on exhibit.

"Guitars are meant to be played. In some cases you'll see guitars that are incredibly beaten up. It was intentional from my standpoint. I didn't want this in any way, shape or form to be a memorabilia exhibit. It's important to us that it not look like some kind of showroom floor."

Weyand said he thinks the home for the exhibit is obvious.

"Pittsburgh would be the place. Has a little grunge to it. I like it here," he said.

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