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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The Art of Music” is the new narrative that we developed for our galleries to explore these intersections. It represents a conceptual and visual departure from our previous galleries, which were largely organized by Hornbostel & Sachs classification, with instruments from the west and from the wider world displayed in separate galleries. By eliminating this schism and adopting a global perspective across the galleries, we hope visitors will be able to identity underlying commonalities in the creation and function of instruments and music worldwide.
Fanfare, an unconventional and eye-catching installation of 75 brass instruments spanning two millennia and five continents, beckons visitors to the galleries. Its layout and interpretation invite exploration of the artistry, diverse forms and shared functions and heritage of brasswinds throughout time and place. Fanfare’s position at the main entrance to the galleries casts it as an introduction to the Art of Music narrative, which is unfolded in two large galleries: the Art of Music through Time and Mapping the Art of Music.
The Art of Music through Time, which features instruments spanning 4,000 years, is
organized chronologically to show that people worldwide have simultaneously created extraordinary music and instruments for millennia. The narrative addresses the use of music and instruments to express status, identity, and spiritual practice. It also considers the impact of changing tastes and emerging technologies. These are shared motifs that span the sweep of time and geography. We were excited by some of the surprising juxtapositions presented by this chronological layout.
A violin made by Andrea Amati with a religious couplet proclaiming the strength of the Catholic church painted on its ribs stands alongside a late Ming dynasty pipa decorated with ivory inlays depicting symbols of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Beyond their musical function, these two great works of lutherie were chosen as canvasses for conveying religious and political messages in their respective cultures.
Collaborating with curatorial colleagues in 11 different departments to incorporate art from across the Met in the music galleries was one of the most exciting elements of the project.
The second large gallery, Mapping the Art of Music, also focuses on the centrality of music to nearly all cultures across time and place. It considers the impact of geography, trade, and migration on shaping music and the instruments used to play it. The intersections of music and cultures along conduits such as the Silk Road and the Triangular Trade are illustrated through instruments and accompanying digital media.
One of the more distinctive instruments in the Met’s collection has also found a home in the Mapping the Art of Music gallery. The ‘golden harpsichord’ and its two accompanying figures were made by Michele Todini for his Macchina di Polifemo e Galatea, an installation that united music, visual art, and dramatic narrative. It was housed in Todini’s Galleria Armonica, a popular stop on the gentleman’s tour of Europe during the late seventeenth century. Now that this instrument is no longer displayed in the same gallery as the Cristofori, visitors are less likely to mistake it for the oldest surviving piano!
We hope the galleries open up many new perspectives and look forward to welcoming you soon!