Be Grateful History Is Not Dead

05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Grateful Dead began their long, strange trip in San Francisco, but the road has now taken them to an unexpected new East Coast destination: the New-York Historical Society, which just opened its new exhibition The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society.

On view are programs, posters, newsletters, tickets, backstage passes, stage props, photographs, contracts, correspondence and more, covering three decades of the band's activity. It's the first exhibition ever presented of materials from the recently established Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and people are crowding in. But some of them are asking, why here? Why is the Historical Society, New York's oldest museum, the right place for this show?

The best answer is that The Grateful Dead: Now Playing At the New-York Historical Society is a genuine contribution to the understanding of American history. It uses the rare and fascinating materials from the Archive to explore not just the life but the times of the Grateful Dead, giving a vivid picture of the band's tremendous, lasting influence on how popular music is performed, recorded, heard, marketed and shared, while also reflecting on the tremendous changes in American society, culture and politics that shaped and influenced the band.

Underscoring the import of the exhibition is the fact that for several weeks, it will be on view virtually side-by-side with another first-ever exhibition from the New-York Historical Society, Lincoln and New York. What's interesting is that many visitors, particularly schoolchildren, will not feel any disconnect between the two experiences. For them, the Dead's 1960s are as much a part of a vague, undifferentiated past as are Lincoln's 1860s--the hippie finery of the psychedelic era having just about the same status for them ("old") as Lincoln's top hat.

But consider what the exhibitions can tell us when they're seen together. They reveal unexpected links and contrasts between the social upheavals of the two decades: the virulently racist Draft Riots of the 1860s, for example, versus the strongly anti-racist draft resistance of the 1960s, or the self-proclaimed sobriety and moralism of Lincoln's New York supporters (organized, tellingly enough, in something called the Sanitary Commission) versus the rather less buttoned-up attitudes of the supporters of the Grateful Dead. Most of all, the two exhibitions remind us of how "freedom," that fundamental but eternally contested American idea, was at the center of the debate in both eras.

And then, of course, there's the opportunity to see how popular culture and its artifacts can illuminate a moment in history, just as much as do "high" art and precious manuscripts.

So no matter which dimension of the subject matter people explore in the exhibition--the influence on the Dead of virtually every strand of American musical tradition, the relationship of the band and its music to the turmoil and excitement of the 1960s, the new business model pioneered by the Dead in taking control of the production and distribution of their music, and especially the development of a sense of community among the band and its multitudes of fans--there will be the possibility of discovering something in the past that's vital, significant and still relevant today.

That's why the Grateful Dead are Now Playing At the New-York Historical Society: because all of us, whether or not we're Deadheads, have good reason today to be grateful that history is not dead.