Oct 11, 2022

Lizzo's Iconic Moment

Dr. Frances Liddell

“As a flute player this is iconic”

Lizzo made recent headlines when she played James Madison’s crystal flute, an instrument originally made for the fourth president of the United States by Claude Laurent in 1813, and now housed at the Library of Congress. 

The performance followed an invitation to see the Library’s 1,500 strong flute collection earlier that week, where Lizzo was seen playing different works and chatting with library curators and staff. 

 It is not surprising that Lizzo performing with this national heirloom has caused some controversy over the flute’s preservation. However, from a broader perspective, Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute highlights an important point on relevancy and reanimating history. 

We just made history tonight” 

Lizzo wasn’t wrong when she shouted this to the crowd. This moment wasn’t simply a promotional stunt but a rare and momentous occasion where a historical instrument was enjoyed by thousands of people at the concert. 

Artifacts such as Madison’s flute are often kept in secure storage facilities and away from the public eye. This is by no means the fault of the Library of Congress; cultural institutions struggle to show even just 5% of their collection, with many items simply being too fragile to be out on display for long periods of time. 

James Madison’s crystal flute, made by Claude Laurent. Photo by Shawn Miller. Library of Congress

However, when celebrities such as Lizzo interact with these often archived pieces, they reanimate the dynamic around them. This is particularly relevant for musical instruments, which were made to be played. In fact, many of the Library’s instruments were gifted with the condition that they continued to be functional. Lizzo’s performance with the flute not only fulfilled that promise but also galvanized interest from a  younger generation that were arguably disconnected from this part of history. 

Activating a shelved object from the Library of Congress also highlights the Library’s work. As one commenter noted, this moment supports the Library in being a ‘living library’, a space that encourages visitors to engage and interact with the collections as opposed to being passive viewers. It gave the Library the opportunity to promote ways to visit the institution and enjoy their collection. 

Most importantly, this moment offered a chance to reflect on the meaning and historical significance of the flute. Tiffany C Li, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law, took to Twitter to highlight the symbolism of Lizzo playing Madison’s flute:

Historical artifacts are preserved to remind us of the past and to challenge our thinking by reflecting how society has changed. Occasions like a pop-icon breathing life into an old instrument  can be catalysts for such conversation. 

(Digitally) Reanimating History 

It is quite rare to see physical artifacts experiencing a moment of fame that isn’t a result of restitution or repatriation disputes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. Instead, historical artifacts are enjoying a renaissance through digital means. 

For example, the UNESCO Global Geopark city of Dunhuang, China is now a map in Clash of Kings - a game where players build kingdoms and wage war on each other. The city appears in the episode Dunhuang Civilization where players will be able to experience the ancient Buddhist murals and architecture as they play and interact with one another. Clash of Kings is bringing attention to the significance of Dunhuang and offering a means to explore the city in a way that is more relevant to younger generations. Of course, there is the risk that gamification can undermine the historic value of the place, but for most people, the digital world is a more accessible way to understand and experience this UNESCO site than being able to travel there in person. 

Similarly, NFTs extend a cultural institution’s collection beyond the museum’s physical location and website, and they offer a way to interact with cultural heritage under a new guise. A case in point is our ‘Modern Rebels’ NFT campaign in partnership with the Women’s Suffrage National Monument Foundation. This initiative uses crowd-patronage to develop a new online community and new source of revenue for the foundation. The proceeds of the NFT sales will go towards building the first monument dedicated to women in Washington D.C. Most importantly, the campaign helps to reimagine the movement for women’s suffrage to a modern day audience. 

The fight for women’s right to vote is over 100 years old, but women’s rights remains an important part of today’s discourse. This campaign aims to highlight the history of the suffrage movement, its key figures, and why it is still relevant today. 

Like Lizzo with James Madison’s crystal flute, NFTs and other digital technologies can be a tool for engaging and, enlightening usersenlightening, and exciting users about various subjects in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them while also enlivening history. Here at Iconic Moments, we are supporting cultural institutions in using this technology to bring new life into their collections.