Shelby Morrison, wearing soft white cotton gloves, opens a sliding metal drawer, pulls out a hardcover British passport and reads the stamps inside: Bermuda, South Africa, Hong Kong.
It belonged to The Beatles’ John Lennon — and Morrison is holding the passport that was current at the time of his death. Although there is an early Lennon passport on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, this one has never been viewed by the public.
Morrison, an exhibitions assistant, and Amanda Gittins, registrar, are among a handful of people allowed access to the Rock Hall’s archives. Together, they can rattle off many of the 10,000 items stored in this 2,000-square-foot, climate-controlled room. It’s a peek into the 60- year history of rock ‘n’ roll that few get to see.
There’s Prince’s sparkling purple jacket from his “Purple Rain” sound track cover; Usher’s chartreuse vest from his last tour; Little Richard’s polyester pink jumpsuit and cape; Elvis’ black, furry winter coat; a stage outfit from Patsy Cline (since rock has roots in other music styles); Ella Fitzgerald’s credit cards (ditto); and leather jackets from Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Alice Cooper, Al Green, Steven Tyler and Joan Jett.
Working in the archives requires a delicate balance between showing items true-to-form and helping to preserve them in good condition for future generations. Light can break down garments — and being located in a glass pyramid doesn’t help. That’s why many of the Rock Hall’s special exhibits are located underneath the building.
But many items go on display, as is. “If something comes in with a stain on it, that’s part of the history of the garment,” Gittins explains. “For example, we have something from Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. It came in with … human fluids on it … we’ll say, blood, vomit, all of the above … and that’s part of the history of the garment. We would want to keep that.”
After all, that’s showbiz.