A new Museum of Music in the heart of London

A new Museum of Music in the heart of London


The Royal College of Music (RCM) opens the doors of its historic Grade II listed building to the public on October 5th with the launch of its new Royal College of Music Museum. The College holds one of the largest conservatoire collections of manuscripts, printed music, historic instruments, portraiture and personal sculptures.

The new, interactive, RCM Music Museum takes us through music from the Renaissance to contemporary music works, forms and tools of today. It houses the oldest guitar in the world alongside current innovations. The collection covers three key areas: Music is Creation, exploring the birth of ideas; Music is Craft, exploring the history and evolution of instrument making, and Music is Performance, following its path to realization and subsequent production.

On arrival you are greeted with a contemporary visual masterpiece, which is an extraordinary blend of music and film created virtually during lockdown by students in Australia and the UK. The exhibition and instruments have been digitized so the original instruments on show can be heard through hand-held audio guides and are projected on the museum’s walls. Professor Gabriele Rossi Rognoni is the RCM’s Chair of Music and Material Culture and the Curator of its Music Museum. He kindly showed me around the museum explaining the history, ethos and the origins of its art and musical collection: “We have a collection of about 14,000 objects, it is one of the largest musically related collections in the country with instruments, sculptures, paintings and engravings covering over 500 years of history. We have a research centre which houses the onsite storage for the instruments not on display. We wanted the music museum to relate to the variety of music in this building: music from the Middle Ages to music for screen and video games. A space that represented all of these things as well as a regular acquisition program of video art, new innovations and musical resources.

One of the challenges of a music museum is that you do not want the space to be silent. However, you cannot play the originals all the time, so we rely a lot on digital technologies. We have a digitisation centre, with a wonderful digitisation officer. Most of the instruments have been recorded. There is a conservation workshop to ensure that instruments are in playable conditions. This requires a substantial amount of work due to the age of the instruments. One of the most invigorating and unique aspects of having a museum inside a university is that it houses excellent musicians and harnesses the energy and inspiration of the young. I have been curating museums around the world for the past 25 years, and one of the struggles is to find the right musicians at the right time. We do not have that problem here. We have our doctorate students and our cohorts of students who are excellent musicians and researchers. We have created a physical space for them and external scholars to engage with the collections.

The museum is very much about education and accessible activities for all. We wanted to redefine how we engage with communities, creating physical space for activities for schools and families, and programs for people suffering from dementia and autism as well as other disabilities. During the Pre-Raphaelite period painters and musicians lived in the same area, with many in the same squares around the College. There was a lot of exchange between them and they married among each other. Musicians played while artists were painting, and artists painted inspired by the musicians. We recently discovered a new original pencil drawing by Burne-Jones which no one knew about. The Pre-Raphaelite scholarly community went crazy when they heard about it.”

By including various art works in the music museum, it is able to communicate the history and stories behind them. Amongst the portraits are: The Italian castrato singer Farinelli 1734, by Bartolomeo Nazari (1693 – 1758) who was famous for his singing in London. This was the peak of Italian opera in 1730’s and the beginning of paying audiences. Farinelli was able to retire to his home in Italy after just one season with the proceeds he earned during that period. Franz Joseph Haydn’s portrait of 1790/91, by Thomas Hardy (1757 1804), along with composers’ portraits, was used by publisher John Bland to create leaflets to advertise for their music. The people purchased this for home performances, during this bourgeois period, and this was the start of musical advertising! There is also a series of portraits by German/British artist Milein Cosman, alongside intimate sketches of RCM alumni and composers and musicians.

On October 5 there is an exhibition about the Victorians and their music which consists of large collection of portraits of musicians of the time. The collection covers approximately 300 years. The Professor continues; “We go beyond representing the history of music and show how ideas and materials come together in the history of human creativity in general. The first area is music creation, that is the beginning of every creative story. New instruments provide the repertoire and then the history of that idea develops.

The second area portrays the development of the idea into a craft, into an actual object. There are 3 instruments from Germany, France and Italy that show how materials, decoration and shape all come together to create these incredible instruments. There are people inventing new musical instruments, creating new interfaces, facing new challenges daily. And we wanted this to be represented here. What is believed to be the oldest guitar dates back to 1581 and was produced in Lisbon. This was possibly a royal commission. The instrument was used for 300 years at the court of the Medici in Florence. However, the instruments also raise all sorts of issues about material and endangered species, and the impact this has on the environment. We wanted to include this in the narrative so we worked with the Natural History Museum and West Dean College to discuss the impact of musical instruments on the environment through history.

We discovered that around 4000 elephants were killed per year to provide keys for pianos in the 19th century; it is an incredible number. It makes you realise how important research is and how it enables us to resource new materials to replace these. We work with the craftsmen to individuate the same sound qualities that do not have such a devastating effect on wild life and the environment. The museum collection shows us that there are many people apart from the performer on stage that exist around our musical world – it’s the craftsmen, the designers, researchers, the suppliers, the engineers. Many different personalities.”

Several of the musical instruments in the museum are adorned with beautiful paintings. The Trasuntino harpsichord is from Venice and reveals a beautiful work of art depicting Venus and Cupid painted in the style of the Venetian artist, Paris Bordone (1580). Due to its location Venice had an endless supply of exotic materials with decorations from aesthetical models that came from Islam. Embellishments include ivory beads, ebony inlay and painted decoration such as Renaissance vine-work, knotted arabesques and flowers.

There is also the virginal by Giovanni Celestini (1587-1610) which was created in 1593. This continues the theme of musical instruments as art as seen in the illustrations, depicting scenes from the myths of Orpheus and Apollo. Professor Rognoni continues, “Then we have the pochettes. The instrument of the dance master. These are petite bowed stringed instruments. Their usage is commonly associated with dance masters and street musicians and were designed to be transported in a pocket to their various destinations, hence the name. Having an elaborately decorated pochette, made from rare and expensive materials, placed you on a different level as a dance teacher! Pochettes were, however, one of the instruments where craft belied the musical quality. The sound is awful unfortunately. It is like food, the more delicious, the less healthy! Sometimes with musical instruments the more inconvenient the better the sound.

The final stage of the museum is Performance. Performance is many different things: performing for your own enjoyment, as it happened on the spinet, performing for a small group or for large audiences. Here we see the portrait of the great performer Farinelli, the castrato singer who initiated the birth of paid performances with opera. And of course, at the College we have plenty of willing performers. We will have concerts every Friday for the local community, making our venue worthy of repeat viewing. It is such a tranquil space with a coffee bar and a proper visitor experience. So do come and see a concert or the museum, or both. It is at the heart of what we are doing. We do not want to be a hidden jewel; museum will revolutionise our ability to learn from the past.”

The RCM’s music museum was designed by ZMMA, and was built as part of the RCM’s £40 million four-year campus transformation project which included a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The overall RCM scheme was designed by eminent architect John Simpson. The Royal College of Music is the number one music conservatoire in the UK and Europe (QS University Rankings) with 900 undergraduate and postgraduate students from over 55 countries. Entrance to the museum is free.

The Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2BS Tuesday to Sunday from the 5th October. 10.00 am until 6.00 pm and 11.00 am to 6.00 pm at weekends. Tickets available for pre-bookings can be bought online at www.rcm.ac.uk/ explore from September 20. The museum’s collection is publicly available on free digital exhibitions released online along with the RCM Library’s extensive collection, both awarded prestigious designated status by Arts Council England in recognition of their outstanding cultural significance. For further information visit: www.rcm.ac.uk

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