Audience Participation and the Grateful Dead Archive

The Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California – Santa Cruz (UCSC) documents the music, history, and social movement associated with one of the most influential rock bands in American history, The Grateful Dead. Members of the band gifted their archive to UCSC in 2008. The gift included an array of artifacts including audio and video recordings, business papers, contracts, artwork, stage backdrops, instruments, recording equipment, photographs, posters, tickets, lyric drafts, and fan art. In addition to the original bequest, new collections have been added to augment the archive. The Herb Greene Photography Collection, The Theresa Garcia Collection of the Jerry Garcia Memorial, The Dennis McNally Papers, The Dick Latvala Collection, and The Michael “Mikel” Linah Collection are all housed within the Grateful Dead Archive in UCSC’s McHenry Library.


Songs of Our Own exhibit poster by Gary Houston Source:

Artifacts from the permanent collection can be seen on exhibit in the Dead Central gallery in UCSC’sMcHenry Library. The current exhibit, “Songs of Our Own: The Art of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon,” features art by band members and fans spanning the band’s more than three decade long career. Access to special collections is also approved for researchers interested in the 60s, the counterculture movement, the Dead’s influence on contemporary music, and many other facets of the Grateful Dead phenomenon.

Arguably, the most influential aspect of the Grateful Dead Archive is its incredibly well developed online database. The Grateful Dead Archive Online (GDAO) features digitized artifacts from the Grateful Dead Archive’s permanent collection. More importantly, the GDAO collections have been augmented by the most devoted fans in contemporary music history, the Deadheads. The site’s homepage calls out for visitors to add their own contributions to the archive, “Help build GDAO: a socially-constructed archive. Please share your digital files or tell your Grateful Dead story.” The site simply, yet ingeniously, builds upon the incredibly participatory nature of the Grateful Dead and its fans. Thousands of fan recordings of live shows were uploaded through GDAO and their partnership with Internet Archive. GDAO also features digitized fan mail, fan art, and ticket request envelopes.

GD4GD5Ticket request envelope – Fan art by Eimon

The beauty of the Grateful Dead Archive Online is that it does not attempt to create audience participation where there is no interest. Rather, they build upon and redirect fans’ already existing desires to participate. Audience participation in building this innovative archive does not feel artificial in any way. By making the collections accessible to the general public and encouraging fans to add their own content, already engaged fans are given new opportunities to interact with the band and its community. It is clear that the creators of the archive know their audience well – Deadheads want to share their photographs, art, stories, and memories, and the GDAO is simply another platform through which this exchange is able to occur.

Despite the many strengths of the online archive, there are a few areas that could be improved. The “Milestones” tab contains a scrolling linear timeline highlighting the additions and losses of band members, album releases, noteworthy shows, tour maps, and other important events in the band’s history. The milestones timeline could be improved by adding historical events about San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, or the cultural movements in the 60s and 70s. Adding events related to these areas could place the band’s music in the wider context of the Grateful Dead phenomenon that the archive is attempting to document. The milestones timeline could also be improved by adding multimedia functions to the events, such as photographs, posters, and audio recordings. I would also like to see the archive implement a second timeline featuring stories, memories, and photographs added by the public.

Additionally, there is a “Dead News” tab with blog posts by Grateful Dead Archivist, Nicholas Meriwether. The blog posts are interesting, well-written, and place artifacts from the archives in a broader context. Unfortunately, the blog is not updated regularly. The last post was published January 15, 2014. Perhaps if visiting scholars and students at UCSC were asked to make contributions to the Dead News blog, the posts could be updated more frequently.

Overall, the Grateful Dead Archive is a fantastic example of how to build upon existing interest in a topic and garner audience participation. As with any museum project, there is always room for improvement. I am excited to explore the Grateful Dead Archive Online as it continues to grow, and hope to some day visit the Grateful Dead Archive and Dead Central exhibit space at UC-Santa Cruz.


2 thoughts on “Audience Participation and the Grateful Dead Archive

  1. I agree with Steph that this archive is really interesting. I would never have thought to even look for an archive on the Grateful Dead. To me what stands out the most is how the audience/ fans are able to contribute to the site. Being able to share your own experiences with the Grateful Dead is a great and interesting way to gain more participation and enthusiasm from viewers. I also agree that something more needs to be done with their timeline. Not only does it not have the historical events on it but it is also not aesthetically appealing. Maybe they could create a larger timeline and color code the different kinds of events, like concerts could be red and historical events could be blue.


  2. You bring up some good points as far as criticisms of the website, especially the difficult to navigate timeline. I do like the basic structure of the site and think that it is a valuable undertaking with an interesting approach in bringing in recordings and artifacts from the public. This part is really important because as any deadhead will tell you, the Grateful Dead is so much more than a band; it is a way of life for many and this should be conveyed by the archives and exhibits. As shown by the massive collection of fan art and recordings already there, this is a topic of great interest for many in the public and it is a good example of a museum with more of a popular rather than scholarly interest, although research is still possible in the collection.


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