I’ve done this A to Z blog challenge for a few years and the biggest challenge remains the letter X. But this year I thought this would be easy, think of an object beginning with X and a museum which has one. X-ray didn’t get me too far, the Marie Curie Museum is in Paris. My next choice was xylophone. This led me to confirm something that I’ve always suspected, there isn’t a national museum of music in the UK. Why not – we have art, science, and transport? As a musician, I’m peeved.
I set off in search (via the Internet) for a music museum with a xylophone, beginning with the Royal Academy of Music Museum in London. There are instrumental collections, especially violins (Stradivari) and pianos. The batons of conductors, manuscripts of music by the greats, and did I mention strings? 200 of them! But no xylophone mentioned. This can’t be the only music museum in London. There are others, so I leapt onto their websites. The Handel and Hendrix museum, two musicians who happened to have lived next door to each other at different times; Fenton House (early keyboards); and the Horniman Museum, which opened in 1901, and is known for its collection of musical instruments, and … taxidermied animals.
Leaving London, I could have had some luck at the Bate Collection owned by the music department of Oxford University. Plenty of woodwind, the instruments were gifted by Philip Bate, but no mention xylophone on the website. The Holst Museum in Cheltenham, like the Elgar birthplace, will satisfy your curiosity about the composer; no musical instrumentals on display.
Heading East, the Grange Musical Collection in Suffolk is a collection of self-playing mechanical devices. They actually look fun, and I might drop in some time to see how these devices work.
I’m going up north. I don’t think the Bagpipe Museum in Northumberland is going to help me on my quest. With 120 sets of bagpipes, it might be a bit noisy. I know Liverpool honours The Beatles, but the Fab Four didn’t rely on a xylophone. What about the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and their historic musical instruments collection? A collection of 300 instruments kept in a basement. It’s not so much of a museum than a repository. But no xylophone. Whoever started the collection preferred strings, woodwind and piano. There’s a definite lack of consideration for percussion.
However on my travels I discovered the Musical Instruments Interface for Museums and Collections, a virtual catalogue of musical instruments in the UK, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music and … the Horniman Museum (apologies, I was distracted by the stuffed animals). MINIM is searchable and there are 5000 percussion instruments listed in the catalogue. I’m feeling optimistic. Turns out there are 72 xylophones distributed among UK museums, but where?
The British Museum, not a surprise really; Milton Keynes Museum has a small one; the SOAS University of London has a collection of African xylophones; the National Museums Scotland has Asian ones and then there is the Museum of Army Music in Twickenham, the Botanic Gardens in Kew, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery… and the Bate Collection (sorry) … and the Horniman museum (apologies again), which goes to show websites don’t tell you everything.
Is this the future of museums? All these problems with storage, accessibility, and location, could we simply sit at home and go on virtual tours of museums, finding our favourite objects from the comfort of our armchairs? Lockdown has given many of us the opportunity to go on virtual museum tours, but what of the experience, the ambience, the rarity of some objects that makes the personal visit extra special?
I don’t think museums will be replaced by the virtual tours, but at least the digitalisation of object images allows us to find that special object and know that somewhere it is being safely conserved for future generations.
I’m off to find the first Xerox machine.