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Dirge

Horniman Museum Policy

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I was going to post this in the great 'Anglo prices are fixed by Investors' thread (or whatever it's called...) and then I thought I'd let it stand alone.

 

Then I checked my facts and found that, whatever I thought I'd read, it was completely wrong.

 

"What is he rambling about?" you ask.

 

I thought I read that the Horniman has a policy that their instruments are NEVER played. Now as far as I'm concerned a musical instrument that isn't played (or a motorcycle that isn't ridden seriously, or a wine that isn't drunk etc.) is not real; it's of no value; you might as well burn it. And museums are the worst. With a museum there is no question that eventually the owner will die and then people who really appreciate the things, whatever they are, will be able to repossess them; the collection is mummified in perpetuity. So a museum with a huge collection of musical instruments that no one would EVER play again fulfilled my worst prejudices.

 

Then, as I say, I checked my facts, and found this:

 

"1.2.11. Requests to play instruments in the permanent collection are reviewed on a case

by case basis, and are granted only in instances where no long-term damage, or loss of

originality is likely to result. The 8,000+ instruments in the permanent collection are not

maintained in playing condition. Where possible, a sound or video recording of the

instrument is acquired with the object, if it has been obtained from an active performer.

Collecting modern examples of traditional instruments in the field can often provide

opportunities to acquire duplicates for the education section’s handling collection."

 

I think that's all you could ask and confidently expect to work through their duet collection comparing and contrasting one day. Or do you think I'm being naive?

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If you do go there take a torch.

And a pitchfork?
:unsure:
No, I guess you had a different purpose in mind.
:D

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"1.2.11. Requests to play instruments in the permanent collection are reviewed on a case

by case basis, and are granted only in instances where no long-term damage, or loss of

originality is likely to result. The 8,000+ instruments in the permanent collection are not

maintained in playing condition. Where possible, a sound or video recording of the

instrument is acquired with the object, if it has been obtained from an active performer.

Collecting modern examples of traditional instruments in the field can often provide

opportunities to acquire duplicates for the education section’s handling collection."

I think that's all you could ask and confidently expect to work through their duet collection comparing and contrasting one day. Or do you think I'm being naive?

Well, if you're being naive, I'd like to be equally naive and hope that I might one day get the chance to test with actual instruments the playability of some of the rare and unique keyboard layouts they have.

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I have no direct experience of the Horniman situation, but mention of museums has touched a raw nerve with me, I'm afraid. So sorry if this rambling is considered off-topic.

 

As a repairer and restorer of free reed instruments, I have often been consulted by museum staff with a view to "conserving" items in their collection. Conserving is an interesting term. Not restoring, nor repairing, as both of these terms imply to me that the end product will be an instrument that is both playable and will be played. However, it would seem that this is not what the museum staff have in mind.

 

I understand that in museum parlence, conservation is defined as: giving attention to prevent objects deteriorating to a worse condition than they were already in at the time they were acquired.

 

I have unsuccessfully stated my case to these folk many times; that musical instruments should be repaired/restored and then played regularly to best preserve their integrity. My comments are greeted with incredulity that somebody should be allowed to play their "valuable pieces', and that there is anyone actually capable of playing them. Comments like "You mean that people still play these old things?" are not untypical. Grrrrr.

 

Rightly or wrongly, I decline to be a party to this maltreatment and neglect.

 

So that brings me around to the conundrum of where to draw the line. Will I work for museums? No thanks. Collectors, as discussed in another thread? Well, maybe....Most collectors I know have instruments restored and do at least put some air through them on occasions.

 

And define "a collector". Presumably any one who has more than one instrument. Guilty as charged. A de facto private museum? Hmmm.

 

Maybe this post should be in the 'Anglo prices are fixed by Investors' thread too....

 

MC (in cynical rant mode!)

Edited by malcolm clapp

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OK Dirge - when you get your appointment to try out the duets, can I come too?? ;)

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I understand that in museum parlence, conservation is defined as: giving attention to prevent objects deteriorating to a worse condition than they were already in at the time they were acquired. Sorry, not interested!

 

 

Rightly or wrongly, I decline to be a party to this maltreatment and neglect.

 

Here's my perspective as a museum director (although not of a museum that has a musical instrument focus).

 

Most museums have a mandate that goes something like this: Collect, preserve, research, interpret and exhibit....

 

The value of most museum collections is to keep good examples of past technology, art forms etc. aside, and to keep them in as original condition as possible so that future generations will always be able to see the genuine article and reconstruct past knowledge. Storage and exhibition conditions, protocols for handling, etc. are all designed to minimize deterioration.

 

As has been pointed out in the related thread, concertinas are mechanical devices, and everytime they are used wear and tear occurs. As they are maintained and repaired over the years, they move further away from their original state. It's like the story my Granddad told me about his wonderful axe. He'd had the same axe for 60 years, but he'd changed the blade once, and the handle twice. If, 50 years from now someone wanted to exactly reproduce the qualities of the early concertinas, they will be able to go to the Horniman and see exactly what materials, finishes and glues were used, how they were assembled, etc. You couldn't do this with a concertina that had been refinished, re-sprung, re-valved, re-padded etc.

 

An extreme example of this debate is going on in the museum field right now around the issue of flying museums. Many curators take the view that it is irresponsible to take an aircraft, which may be one of only two or three in existance, make many changes to it to make it airworthy, and then, at the very least subject it to mechanical wear and tear, or worst case, crash it! Not good preservation strategies!

 

The Horniman also takes an ethical burden off us players. I have an unusual square Henry Harley concertina c.1875, which I have done some repairs to, and play fairly regularly. I know that the Hornimann has one in their collection, and will preserve it, freeing me to use and enjoy mine without guilt.

 

There are instances where careful use under the supervision of a Conservator will be beneficial to the longevity of an artifact, or may contribute significantly to our understanding of that artifact, and possibly that is the case with concertinas. But there should be some good scientific research to back up that strategy.

 

Having said that, museums are selective. The Horniman doesn't want to hoover up every vintage concertina, just the best and most original example they can find for each type. Most museums also have limited budgets, relying more on donations than purchases, so they don't drive the prices up the way private collectors do.

Edited by Bill N

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Most museums have a mandate that goes something like this: Collect, preserve, research, interpret and exhibit....

 

The value of most museum collections is to keep good examples of past technology, art forms etc. aside, and to keep them in as original condition as possible so that future generations will always be able to see the genuine article and reconstruct past knowledge. Storage and exhibition conditions, protocols for handling, etc. are all designed to minimize deterioration.

 

I just recently stumbled over an interesting website here. The museum in Ellwangen (South-West Germany) possesses a lyre from an archaeological dig in the area dating from the 7th century (yes, seventh!). This has been examined by a luthier, who now offers a weekend course, "Build your own Alamannic lyre". There's a follow-on course on playing the beast, too.

 

Obviously, if the original, dug-up instrument had been restored to a playable condition, there'd be very little of the original craftsmanship and material left - the find would be effectively lost to future generations of archaeologists. But in the condition as found, it gives no indication of how it originally sounded - which is, after all, the main feature of a musical instrument.

 

This replication to specs taken non-intrusively from the original seems to me to be the optimal approach to 7th-century European music.

 

Transferred to the concertina, this would mean that just one of each model of each manufacturer should be preserved in an unrestored state, so that when all the actively used instruments have been repaired and modernised, there will still be a point of reference to keep further renovations from drifting farther away from the original, and to help new manufacturers to learn how Wheatstone and Jeffries achieved their results.

 

Cheers,

John

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...mention of museums has touched a raw nerve with me....

...

Rightly or wrongly, I decline to be a party to this maltreatment and neglect.

Here's my perspective as a museum director (although not of a museum that has a musical instrument focus).

 

Most museums have a mandate that goes something like this: Collect, preserve, research, interpret and exhibit....

And here we see a major difficulty... sincere but violently disparate views of what is the "best use" or "proper purpose" of a particular object.

 

Even among those who agree on those points, there can be sincere yet serious disagreements as to how best to accomplish -- or most closely approximate -- the desired result.

 

Not limited to concertinas or even musical instruments, by any means.

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Having visited the Horniman to compare a concertina I was repairing to one in their collection, I'll share my story. My concern was that I wanted to get my concertina as close to the original as possible, knowing that some changes had been made to mine over the years which certainly hadn't improved either its performance or its looks - so I wanted to see an instrument as close to mine in manufacture as possible.

 

The Horniman had such a beast so I made an appointment to visit.

 

They couldn't be more helpful. The concertinas not on display are not at the museum but in a storehouse near the O2 dome. The staff were very concerned that I wasn't going to harm the instrument in any way or introduce foreign elements (like swap reeds or bring contamination in) so there was a fair amount of procedure to follow and they watched me very carefully - but they did let me disassemble their instrument, take photos, make measurements and make notes. It's not a display environment and the instrument had to be brought out of storage to a place where the inspection could be made. There was no possibility of "while I'm here, can I also try these 5 others and give them a run through as well"

 

A few things surprised me:

This instrument was clearly not a prime example - there didn't seem to be an "minimum entry standard" for what comes into the collection

The instrument wasn't in great shape - it was falling apart and nothing had been done to it to either restore it or to prevent it getting any worse (apart from putting it in a cupboard and not allowing anyone near it).

Inside the instrument was a moth carcase - it clearly hadn't been cleaned or fumigated as part of the entry process (so there could be live bugs in some of the instruments?).

As part of the inspection, one of the key bushings fell out. The museum attendant was a little perturbed, not knowing whether to let me put it back where it came from (which I had the competence to do) or leave it where it fell inside the instrument as a "legacy" to avoid any process which might look like restoration.

 

I acknowledge that some of the above is a matter of museum policy and that some museums take a different line on conservation (Tom Wheatcroft's racing car museum at Donington Park in the UK used to take pride that all vehicles in the collection had been restored to a driveable state and often were - at least once a year!).

 

I also acknowledge that the Horniman doesn't have funds to be able to repair everything. Most of their collection appears to be from Neil Wayne's collecting and I doubt he had the time or money to be able to get everything back to playing condition.

 

But it's interesting isn't it? How many of the Horniman's instruments are truly valuable, unique and have a lesson to give to the future? Should they have a policy of only keeping the best or most representative of a type or a manufacturer?

 

If they decided to sell (does the terms of their acquisition allow them to?), would their release on the market satisfy those who wish to see more vintage instruments at a reasonable price? Would certain dealers be out of business at a stroke?

 

Answers on a postcard please! I'll repeat though - as long as I followed their process, the staff couldn't be more helpful and it was a very useful visit for me.

 

Alex West

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One of my favorite museums is located in South Dakota and is the second largest museum dedicated to musical instruments of the world. It has a Stradivarius-built 5-string guitar on display. I would love to hear an audio file of that instrument but understand why the museum would hesitate to bring it out of its protective case even to permit a master like Christopher Parkening to play it. I think only two of those exist in the world.

 

That said, a similar museum in Germany apparently allowed some of their historic guitars to be played for the purpose of documenting the sounds they produced and I heard the results on a website. One was a late 1700s instrument with walnut back and sides and Alpine spruce top (virgin wood with exceptionally tight growth rings, no longer available). WHAT AN AMAZING SOUND! What a valuable educational tool.

 

However, in the case of historic concertinas, products of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, restoring them to playability while keeping them "authentic" would require a master craftsman and a LOT of careful hours of research and work. That could add up to a big financial investment that museums would probably like to put somewhere else, such as new display purchases.

 

I have a Lachenal anglo that I have dated to 1901, custom built for some fellow in Bradford, England. I have seen very few ebonized Lachenal anglos so it probably qualifies as a "museum piece." Wim Wakker restored it and did a magnificent job, but he had to replace reeds -- a common issue with vintage instruments. Getting reeds that identically match the "timbre" of the original reeds just ain't that easy folks. He saved the original bellows, which I prefer because I love history, but a modern set of Wakker bellows would have made it much easier to play. Also, I had him redo the entire internal mechanism to rivetted action, so you really can't call the instrument "authentic" any longer. You can't see the changes, but they are very real; and when I play it, I know that I am not playing the same instrument Lachenal turned out in 1901. Close. But no cigar.

 

Concertinas are mechanical instruments. They just aren't the same as historic violins, cellos or classical guitars. What I hope is that, some day, a fellow like Wim will find a way to "match" the sound produced by those vintage instruments with a modern concertina, and I don't see why that cannot be accomplished.

 

Still, I am glad that I have my Lachenal and it isn't in a museum.

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But it's interesting isn't it? How many of the Horniman's instruments are truly valuable, unique and have a lesson to give to the future? Should they have a policy of only keeping the best or most representative of a type or a manufacturer?

 

If they decided to sell (does the terms of their acquisition allow them to?), would their release on the market satisfy those who wish to see more vintage instruments at a reasonable price? Would certain dealers be out of business at a stroke?

 

Alex West

 

Sounds like it was a useful experience for you.

 

Every museum should have a unique policy that reflects its mandate. While one usually tries to collect the best examples, condition and value are only 2 considerations. A poor example of a very rare item may be the best that still exists. Or perhaps an historical association makes it of value ie the cheap German box that William Kimber chewed on when he was a baby ;) Also, museums are in competition with private collectors, who often have very deep pockets, so often have to settle for a less than ideal example.

 

An ethical museum will sometimes cull (deaccession) items from its collection, for instance if a better example of an artifact is aquired or further research negates its place in the museum. Every artifact is a long term committment and expense, so museums try not to hang on to things that don't belong, but will always try to place the item in another public institution. Sale at public auction is the last resort.

Edited by Bill N

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Musical instruments were made to make music, and are not only aestehic and/or rare objects. The policy of every museum of musical instruments should be that when possible their instruments should be played. Some of their instruments need perhaps too much restoration or are to fragile, and I understand that museum staff should refrain from restoration in such cases. But several instruments could make music again which some slight effort (lets say repadding a concertina, and keep the old pads for history sake). All these instruments sound different and that should be one major concern of museum staff. I have seen too many beautiful and interesting instruments locked up in showcases, mute and soundless for the rest of their pitiful existence.

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I went to the British National Motorcycle Museum long ago. I was hoping to see unique factory racers and great rarities, but at that stage (it hadn't been open long; maybe it got better) all it had was serried ranks of standard models 'restored' to look factory standard and pristine. There were all the telltale clues that they never ran.

 

A lot of these were the sort of machines I was using for transport (this is in the 1980's and I'm talking about machines from the 50's and 60's) and I really didn't like the place. It was like seeing lots of old friends stuffed and mounted. They deserved better.

 

Things made with a clear purpose are pointless until they fulfill their function, in my opinion.

 

The Golden Hind sailed round the world (Francis Drake circumnavigating the globe in 15 something for those of you who are wondering) and the astounded Elizabethans decided to preserve her in dry dock for ever. A century later Samuel Pepys walked over her and agreed the old girl was a death trap and that she should be broken up. All that is left of her now is the odd chair made from salvaged timbers and sitting in the library of this or that stately home.

 

Do the maritime historians of today spend their time weeping about the short sighted actions of Mr Pepys, or are they happily occupied with writing reams of learned works about the workings of the Elizabethan navy? I'm pretty sure it's the latter. I don't think it really matters as much as some would think that precious items are guarded for ever. Things pass. Not having the original Golden Hind hasn't stopped the building of a replica; it floats in a dock in Southwark and you can hire it for your kids' parties. Those that are interested are still getting lots of fun out of the Golden Hind. Walking over HMS Victory is an amazing experience, but if you had never been able to do it, no one would miss it.

 

Alex's story is, as I understand it, a textbook example of what a museum is for. Yet if Alex hadn't been able to inspect the original he'd have coped, wouldn't he? Let me put it this way. Is it worth destroying, in effect, one instrument so that very occasionally it is a useful reference for someone. Because we surely are talking very occasionally. And, to my mind, if you put a musical instrument in a museum for ever and deliberately let it drift into an unplayable state, you have, in effect destroyed it; even though it is still there to look at.

 

I probably was being naive because the Horniman are not maintaining their collection in playable order for fear of damaging the exhibits. Shame.

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As has been pointed out in the related thread, concertinas are mechanical devices, and everytime they are used wear and tear occurs. As they are maintained and repaired over the years, they move further away from their original state. It's like the story my Granddad told me about his wonderful axe. He'd had the same axe for 60 years, but he'd changed the blade once, and the handle twice. If, 50 years from now someone wanted to exactly reproduce the qualities of the early concertinas, they will be able to go to the Horniman and see exactly what materials, finishes and glues were used, how they were assembled, etc. You couldn't do this with a concertina that had been refinished, re-sprung, re-valved, re-padded etc

 

I'm sorry, I can't see that at all. Re-springing, re-valving, re-padding are all akin to putting new tyres on a car when the old ones have worn out. It doesn't change the nature of the car. These are intended to be replaced. If these "consumables" are replaced when needed then a cared-for good quality concertina should be expected to have a playing life of several centuries. And it should] be played. The details of the construction are meaningless if you don't know how it sounds, what it feels like to play, how it sits in the hands and responds to different playing techniques. I have to say I can only really see the point of an unplayed specimen preserved in aspic if beside it is an exact reproduction for people to play. Otherwise it is a pretty but fundamentally purposeless exhibit.

 

I'm sorry, I didn't realise I felt so passionately about this until I started to write this response, but I find I feel that locking up a potentially fine musical instrument unrestored and unplayed a very sad thing.

 

Chris

 

Edited to correct a trivial spelling mistake that Dick Miles, for some reason, felt compelled to point out.

Edited by Chris Timson

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Things made with a clear purpose are pointless until they fulfill their function, in my opinion.

 

Because we surely are talking very occasionally. And, to my mind, if you put a musical instrument in a museum for ever and deliberately let it drift into an unplayable state, you have, in effect destroyed it; even though it is still there to look at.

 

I apologize in advance if this comes across as lecturing. I have been a museum worker for over 30 years. In a field that isn't terribly renumerative or respected, passion keeps one going!

 

With the exception of fine art objects, very few of the artifacts in today's museums are fulfilling their original function. And yet, within the context of the museum, they do have a very rich purpose as repositories of the knowledge, craft and world view of our ancestors. Sounds a bit lofty, I know, but the concertina is a wonderful case study. I can't think of a better example of the Victorian desire to harness technological advances of the day to improve the daily lives of everyday people,

and make a pound/buck at the same time!. "Modern" materials and industrial methods coupled with a "new" social paradigm put a sophisticated mechanical musical instrument into the hands of the working class for the very first time. Would William Kimber's legacy or the rich ITM tradition exist today if there hadn't been that confluence of technology and philosophy? Surely it is worth preserving a few intact and original examples of the work of Charles Wheatstone, et al, to document and commemorate that.

 

You mentioned your dismay at seeing motorcycles that have personal meaning to you over-restored so that they look brand new. That is exactly my point. Automotive and aviation museums are an anomaly in the museological field. An authentic object, with all the bumps and bruises of its purpose and use is a far more satisfying and information laden experience, and certainly worth peserving. And sadly, if many years from now someone wants to understand the manufacture and use of motorcycles in that period, when approaching the collection you cited, they will have to sort out the modern cosmetic "restorations" from the genuine article.

 

Very occassionly? No. Museums are a thriving phenomena. In an age were change is more than algorythmic, people are flocking to museums. We may be adding to human knowledge at an unprecedented rate, but we are also losing it at an unpredecedented rate.

 

There were tens (100s?) of thousands of concertinas produced in the "golden age". That same number is no longer available to would-be players today, but not because collectors and museums snapped them all up. Rather, they were used and worn out, poorly maintained, under valued and pitched. When a museum aquires a concertina, it is set aside from the "supply and demand" equation. It is automatically valued and preserved for the intrinsic and potential information it possesses.

 

As far as "destroying" an instrument is concerned, this is not the intention. Museums are chronically underfunded, so their ability to achieve the ideal is often compromised, but the intention is to preserve the artifact in its original condition for as long as possible. In the long run, an artifact will fare better in a public collection. Any changes made are carefully documented, and should be reversible. And the science of conservation is very sophisticated. There are many examples of regular use being prescribed for the health of an artifact. Possibly this is the case for concertinas. I don't know.

 

There are some collectors/historians on this forum. I would welcome their comments on the value of unmodified, early instruments to their understanding of the evolution of the concertina. Stephen, Dan?

 

Finally, mummified? Once again, no. I was prompted by an artifact, my inherited Great-great-grandfather's concertina, to do some historical research, which led to my embracing the instrument as a living tradition. We see this sort of revival happening all the time, in many fields, as a result of museum collections, research and programming.

Museums strive to revivify the technologies and values of the past, not ossify them.

Edited by Bill N

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