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Introducing the Art of Music

New galleries and a new narrative for musical instruments at the Met

By Dr. Bradley Strauchen-Scherer

Cue the condor feather rondador, silver kettle drums, Roman tibia, Cristofori piano, Ming Dynasty pipa, trumpet-call harmonica and nearly 600 other instruments from around the world and across time: the five music galleries at the Met are now fully open after an extensive three-year campaign of renovation and reinterpretation!

Rondador (panpipes), Ecuador, ca. 1960. Metropolitan Museum

We’ve been hard at work behind the scenes to prepare for this moment. The gallery closure has been an invaluable opportunity for vital conservation and research projects large and small. Every instrument was removed from the galleries for assessment and cleaning, even the Met’s Thomas Appleton pipe organ, which received comprehensive treatment under the guidance of Manu Frederickx, Jen Schnitker and Larry Trupiano. It was amazing to see the instrument reappear on the balcony pipe by pipe


It has also been an important period for collection research. Visiting research fellow Tsan-Huang Tsai has been conducting an in depth survey of the Met’s Asian instruments, many of which came into the collection in the 19th century. He advised on the selection and display of Asian instruments in the gallery and collaborated with conservators to find the most appropriate solutions for replacing lost strings and other elements on historical examples.

Extensive eye-to-eye conservation work enabled pieces like these Japanese oni bearing a gong to be displayed again for the first time in many years.

During the course of the renovation, over 400 new mounts were custom made for instruments ranging from tiny gold bells to giant slit gongs. Mount making has been central to redefining the perception of the collection and the feel of the galleries. More than any other element of display or interpretation, mounts that enable instruments to be presented in a dynamic way signal that they are important works of art.

Tim Caster and Mirek Mackiewicz fabricating a mount for a set of highland pipes.

Meanwhile, in the empty galleries, demolition and construction work revealed and restored historical elements of the spaces, including the wood parquet floors and limestone masonry original to the Morgan Wing. The removal of many built in platforms and cases has created new sightlines and offers flexibility that will enable these permanent galleries to serve as dynamic spaces that can accommodate new acquisitions and displays.

We’re thrilled that we are no longer displaying the world’s oldest known piano on the world’s oldest (or at least the Met’s) wall-to-wall carpet, but the most exciting element of the project was having the opportunity to extend the renovation to the narrative and presentation of the galleries.

Visitors can hear the Cristofori piano and over 80 instruments in the gallery with the audio guide and online.

Our early dialogues about the new narrative centered on fundamental questions: what is unique about being the musical instrument department at the Met and what opportunities does this present? Who is our audience and what most inspires and intrigues them about music? How can musical instrument galleries best resonate with the broader mission of an encyclopedic art museum such as the Met?

A few core ideas began to crystalize: music is central to nearly all cultures around the world and across time; all seventeen of the Met’s curatorial departments include art relating to music; musical instruments are art; and like all great art, instruments do not exist in a vacuum but are deeply interwoven with broader cultural currents shaping music, society, technology and aesthetics.

Instruments are art: if Salvador Dali had