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Defining Moments: A Written History of Contact High

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop Closes January 7
Blog written by Amalia Kozloff and Adeerya Johnson

As we say goodbye to one of MoPOP’s most popular exhibitions, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, which must leave as we make space for our newest exhibition, we wanted to reflect on its impact at the museum. 

MoPOP has been at the forefront of hip-hop archiving and preservation for over 25 years. It was the first museum to begin collecting hip-hop artifacts from many of the early founders in the late 1990s and continues those relationships today. With that early collection, MoPOP opened some of the first hip-hop exhibitions, Hip-Hop Nation, in 2000, followed by Yes, Yes, Yall: The Birth of Hip-Hop in 2003. Sticking to our roots and commitment to hip-hop history and culture, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop was the perfect exhibition to continue that conversation with our visitors almost 20 years later. Its run at MoPOP also coincided with hip-hop's 50th anniversary, amplifying its relevance and impact. The decision to bring in Vikki Tobak’s book-turned-exhibition was an opportunity to engage in the rich culture of hip-hop while showcasing MoPOP’s efforts to preserve the legacy of the genre and the community that built it. Aligned with the exhibition timeline, MoPOP was the proud recipient of a 2021 CLIR grant which funded Hip-Hop Archivist Adeerya Johnson and the full digitization of our hip-hop collection, not only making it publicly accessible through our online collection vault but introducing us to our Associate Curator (and blog author!). 

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop highlighted author and curator Vikki Tobak’s meticulous curation and emphasized the intimacy and process behind hip-hop photography. The significance of photography in preserving hip-hop’s history cannot be overstated—it serves as a time capsule, collating the moments, emotions, and stories that define the essence of hip-hop culture.

We were so inspired by the book and the stories within it that we designed the exhibition to highlight the intimate relationship between photographer and subject, illustrated by the hand-annotated contact sheets displayed and used as wallcoverings throughout the exhibition. Paired with selections from MoPOP’s hip-hop collection, including costumes, turntables, flyers, and other artifacts, the exhibition design enhanced the photos and contact sheets from the original book with additional texture and context. Artifact selection mirrored this process, ensuring each object, such as Grand Master Flash’s turntables or The Notorious B.I.G.’s tailored suit, resonated with the narrative of hip-hop's cultural journey. 

As hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023, the exhibition served as a commemorative cornerstone. Through visual storytelling, it highlighted the diversity and richness of hip-hop’s journey, as well as MoPOP’s dedication to documenting, interpreting, and displaying that journey, standing ultimately as a testament to the importance of the genre and its impact on all of pop culture. 

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop wasn’t just an exhibition, it was an opportunity for MoPOP to embrace the ever-evolving landscape of cultural representation in pop culture. It encapsulated the spirit of hip-hop, not just through iconic imagery, but through an immersive experience that educated and engaged our guests alongside an accompanying suite of community-oriented and educational programs. Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop celebrated and documented hip-hop’s history, but even more than that, it was a document of the global phenomenon’s enduring legacy.