Smithsonian acquires Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership

The funkiest UFO in the galaxy is about to land in Chocolate City.

The Mothership — the iconic stage prop made famous by legendary funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic — has been acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where it will help anchor a permanent music exhibition when the museum opens its doors in 2015.

“I’m about to cry!” Parliament-Funkadelic frontman George Clinton said over the phone from his home in Tallahassee on Wednesday. “They’re taking the Mothership! They’re shipping it out! . . . But I’m glad it’s going to have a nice home there.”

It isn’t the original Mothership. This 1,200-pound aluminum spacecraft was built in the mid-’90s — an indistinguishable replica, Clinton says, of the smoke-spewing stage prop he first introduced to slack-jawed funk fans in 1976.

But by 1982, Parliament-Funkadelic’s towering debts forced the group’s Washington-based management company to trash the Mothership in a Prince George’s County scrap yard. And what happened next has become the stuff of myth. Was it stolen? Did it burn in a fire? Is it still floating around somewhere in the cosmos?

An April 2010 Washington Post story about the Mothership’s disappearance sent the Smithsonian searching for it. Kevin Strait, project historian for the museum, didn’t get very far. “All signs pointed to the fact that we weren’t going to find the original,” Strait said. “So that’s when we essentially put our attentions toward the new one.”

Strait contacted Clinton’s management, and the bandleader eventually decided to donate the piece. The ship has been picked up from Clinton’s Tallahassee recording studio and is scheduled to arrive at a Smithsonian storage facility in suburban Maryland at noon on Thursday.

It’ll be somewhat of a homecoming. The group first formed as the Parliaments in Plainfield, New Jersey in the late 1950’s, but after morphing into a two-group collective — Parliament and Funkadelic — it would go on to enjoy one of its most loyal followings in Washington. Parliament’s 1975 album “Chocolate City” gave the nation’s capital an unofficial nickname that still sticks today.

When the band lowered the Mothership from the rafters of the Capital Centre in Landover in 1977, the response was rapturous. Not only was it instantly stunning — it felt like a cosmic metaphor for the sense of possibility that followed the civil rights movement.

That symbolism isn’t lost on the Smithsonian.

“With large iconic objects like this, we can tap into . . . themes of movement and liberation that are a constant in African-American culture,” says Dwandalyn R. Reece, curator of music and performing arts for the museum. “The Mothership as this mode of transport really fits into this musical trope in African American culture about travel and transit.”

It will be exhibited alongside other artifacts from American music history — Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, James Brown’s stage costumes, Lena Horne’s evening gowns. But it will be the only spaceship.

“It definitely fits in,” said Reece. “Funk is not just a good groove, it was its own kind of social protest movement.”

And while the original Mothership’s whereabouts remain a mystery, Clinton thinks this one will serve the Smithsonian just fine.

The second ship “went out on the road for a long time,” he says. “Nobody knew the difference!”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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