Music at the Horniman Museum

Janet Vitmayer previews the new Music Gallery at the Horniman which is due to open this winter.

In 1901, towards the end of a full life, Frederick Horniman, the Victorian tea merchant, Liberal politician, collector and public benefactor gave his newly built museum to the people of London for their ‘recreation, instruction and enjoyment’. Horniman was a lifelong collector who reputedly began collecting butterflies when he was still a schoolboy. By the end of his life his collection included over 7,000 objects spanning the human and natural worlds.

Among the objects Horniman donated in 1901 was a collection of 200 musical instruments. One hundred years later, this number has grown to over 7,000 instruments and the collection is now considered to be the most comprehensive in the UK, with certain aspects of it ranked alongside major American and European collections such as that of the Metropolitan Museum, New York and the Brussels Musical Instrument Collection.

The redisplay of these instruments in the Music Gallery, which opens this winter, constitutes an important element of the new heritage lottery funded Centenary Development at the Horniman. The larger project  includes the Centenary Gallery (charting the development of the Museum’s collections over the last hundred years), the ‘Hands on Base’ (equipped with some 4,000 handling objects) and a new temporary exhibition gallery.

The brief for the new Music Gallery was complex. We needed to display the breadth of this fine collection, to make it user-friendly and coherent for the many musicians, instrument makers and academics who come to study it, while simultaneously making it accessible to and engaging for the general visitor.

The project raised interesting questions: does the curator study and display the instrument as a work of great craftsmanship or primarily as an object of social history? To what extent can one divorce the instrument from the purpose for which it was made – the creation of music? What, exactly, defines an instrument?

Music forms a part of all human cultures. From earliest times people have displayed great invention in the ways in which they have created musical instruments. Among the earliest known are those percussion instruments associated with movements that are fundamental to human activity, such as striking, shaking, scraping or stamping. Drums made of stretched skin are good examples of these early instruments, as are our Egyptian hand clappers.

A musical instrument, we decided, is any object created or used for the creation of sound. Thus the musical saw has an equal right to inclusion in the gallery as the cor anglais.

The new gallery is divided into three main areas. The ‘Rhythm of Life’ section introduces the concept of music from the cradle to the grave, the ‘Ideal Sound’ area looks at how sounds are created and how music has migrated across the world. ‘Listening to Order’, meanwhile, looks at the way in which we order (or tame) music through the classification of instruments.

From the noise of the nursery rattle to the funeral organ, music has always been present in marking the  passage of time. It is used ritually, in an official as well as a recreational capacity, and in defining social status (trumpets, for example, are traditionally associated with the pomp surrounding monarchs and high ranking officials).

The Horniman is one of a small number of museums that continues a tradition of vibrant fieldwork. The first Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Museum was the ethnomusicologist Jean Jenkins. Jenkins brought traditional music to a wide audience through her broadcasts and extensive field recordings in East and West Africa. The present gallery contains a number of fieldwork recordings including an Uzbek wedding which was recorded by our curators in 1999.

The value of fieldwork for a musical instrument collection is that instruments and other related objects can be collected and their original sound recorded and contextualised. Apart from the obvious archival value, this fieldwork greatly enhances the Museum’s ability to display material in an engaging and informative way. The importance of sound in this gallery is clearly enormous and visitors will be able to hear music played both through fieldwork recordings linked to video footage, and by calling up short samples of the sounds made by various instruments on display.

In many cultures death is marked through a musical event. One example of this, captured by our fieldworkers, was the Sak Vue or memorial ceremony of Papa Tchuente Michel in a village in West Cameroon in 1999. Here a masked dancer representing the deceased danced to the music of a slit drum. Although Papa Tchuente Michel had died some twenty-three years previously, it had taken this many years to gather the resources in order for this elaborate ceremony to be staged.

The theme of musical migrations in the new displays is exemplified by the Carlton drum kit. This masterpiece of the Jazz age reflects a series of musical heritages: the cowbell recalls West African iron bells, while the bass drum derives from the European military tradition. The snare drum of the set resembles the side drum of the symphony orchestra – both drums derive from the medieval tabor. The cymbals, meanwhile, are based on instruments from Turkey and China and the wood blocks also herald from China.

One aim of the new gallery was to avoid exoticism in its representation of the peoples included in the displays. The Museum was therefore keen to remind visitors of the similarities  as well as the differences across cultures. In working with the BRIT School of Performing Arts and Technology, we are able to show examples of musical rites of passage for young Britons today. Visitors can experience the juxtaposition of contemp-orary British youth at their final year concert, for example, with samples of fieldwork footage from the Cameroon and Uzbekistan.

The opportunity for the visitor to participate in the displays in diverse ways and at a number of levels, was also key to the planning of this gallery. Two additional spaces, one for performance and one where visitors can begin to learn to play selected instruments reflect our approach to the display of these collections and our hopes for how the gallery will be used.

  • Janet Vitmayer is the Director of the Horniman Museum.
The Horniman Museum, London Road, Forest Hill, London SE23 3PQ. Telephone: 020 8699 2339.
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