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Commentary: Collections of musical instruments make fascinating exhibitions


After seeing a couple of dazzling special exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I walked over to the galleries of musical instruments. The galleries’ collection of these instruments include approximately 5000 examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands and are from 300 B.C. to the present. The galleries illustrate the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. The text panels said that the instruments may be understood in a number of ways: as art objects, as ethnographic record, and as documents of the history of music performance. The galleries proved to be dazzling as well as what I'd originally come to see.

There were slit gongs from Africa, a pair of kettledrums from Hanover, Germany from 1779 and a contrabass saxophone that stood 6'7" tall, just to give you an idea of what I saw.

I remembered visiting The Musical Instrument Museum better known as MIM in Phoenix years ago. MIM opened in 2010 and is the largest museum of its kind in the world. The collection of over 15,000 musical instruments and associated objects includes examples from nearly 200 countries and territories, representing every inhabited continent. Some larger countries such as Mexico, India, China, Russia, the United States and Brazil have multiple displays with subsections for different types of ethnic, folk and tribal music.

The Museum was founded by Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and chairman of Target Corporation. An avid collector of African art and a world museum enthusiast, Ulrich and his friend Marc Felix originated the idea after a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels, Belgium.

The Belgian Museum was originally attached to the Royal Conservatory of Brussels with the purpose of demonstrating early instruments to students. The museum itself was created in 1877 with a collection of a hundred Indian instruments given to Belgian King Leopold II by Rajah Sourindro Mohun Tagore in 1876 and the collection of the celebrated Belgian musicologist Francois-Joseph Fetis, purchased by the Belgian government in 1872 and put on deposit in the Conservatory, where Fetis was the first director.

There are museums of musical instruments all over the world.Some are devoted to specific instruments and periods of time such as the Museum of Musical Instruments in Milan, Italy. This museum exhibits over 700 musical instruments from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries with particular attention to Lombard instruments. The collection contains plucked instruments, Lombard and Cremonese violins, hunting horns, numerous wood instruments, pianos and some ancient organs and more.

The National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. has a collection of music and musical instruments. The Museum's music collections contain more than 5,000 instruments of American and European heritage. These include a quartet of 18th-century Stradivari stringed instruments, Tito Puente's autographed timbales, and the Yellow Cloud guitar that belonged to Prince, to name only a few.

And our own Sheldon Art Galleries in Grand Center is now the owner of a collection of musical instruments worth more than 2 million dollars donated by local music professor Aurelia Hartenberger. She spent more than 40 years accumulating 2500 instruments from nearly every continent. Some are contemporary, others date back 3000 years.

Paul Reuter, Director of the Sheldon Arts Foundation says, "The Hartenberger Collection is the perfect link between our Sheldon Art Galleries and the Sheldon Concert Hall-and we're already showing parts of the collection in our Galleries and using them in education programs for young people.”

Olivia Lahs-Gonzales reminded me that in June an exhibition entitled "Amazing Horns" will open in the Galleries featuring wonderful and bizarre instruments.

As usual, St. Louis is right on target with this unique array of world instruments. Check your calendar to put some exciting dates to see the revolving displays of these very special objects of art.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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