Designated collection: exploring the Horniman Museum's Music collection

By Richard Moss | 01 October 2009
a picture of a gallery with glass display cases containing musical instruments

(Above) © Richard Moss / Culture24

In Frederick Horniman's generous bequest to the people of London were some 200 musical instruments. Today the collection numbers more than 8,000 examples of sound-producing instruments from all over the world

Richard Moss joins Keeper of Musical Instruments Margaret Birley to explore a few of the highlights of the most comprehensive and certainly best displayed and explained musical instrument collection in the UK.

The atmospherically-lit music gallery of the Horniman hums with a gentle hubbub of sounds. Some drift from the interactive music tables and the discreet directional speakers, others emanate from the open door of the ever popular "hands-on space", where young hands make Moondog symphonies on clavicles, clappers, drums and shakers.

But apart from the occasional shriek of an over-excited youngster, it's a sound that never overwhelms. In fact, the Music Gallery of the Horniman is a relaxed space, where everything has been designed to make the balance between sound and vision a comfortable one.

Immaculate glass display cases stretch the length of the gallery, containing an implausible range of musical instruments of every conceivable shape, size and origin. From this clamour of contraptions emerge themes, stories and clever narratives that reward both casual and informed visitors.

a long shot of a gallery display case with various musical instruments in it

© Richard Moss / Culture24

"We decided to go for targeted delivery," says Margaret Birley, the Horniman's Keeper of Music, "and aim the messages of our gallery at our family audience."

"Frederick Horniman dedicated his collection and the museum building to the people of London as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment forever.

"It was then developed by the first Honorary Curator, Alfred Cort Haddon. The Museum's aim was to replicate the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, but in a way that the general public, rather than University students, would understand."

The current Gallery was created in 2002, and showcases 1,500 instruments, displayed according to different themes.

"Here we are looking at the way musical instruments are used in the course of human life, from the cradle to the grave, in different countries," says Margaret.

"This particular showcase looks at how musical instruments are used in adulthood and are integral to human survival in that they are used hunting and herding animals, and in enhancing daily life. These instruments are associated with status and gender."

We look at an impressive hourglass-shaped drum played by men from a Gbain cult in Ghana, and a long, conical drum from Papua New Guinea with an end shaped like the gaping mouth of a fish.

Hovering above it all is a battered drum with weathered leather tabs and ropes. It looks like it's been through a war.

"It was used for beating the bounds – walking around the city walls demarcating the boundaries of Exeter in the 17th century," Margaret tells me. "We're interested in the ways instruments are used for defining sonic boundaries."

a display case with a metal cello in it

© Richard Moss / Culture24

They are, it seems, interested in many things at the Horniman, and the music collection is ever growing, changing and diversifying.

Margaret recently returned from the Punjab, and in the 1990s she travelled to the republics of the former Soviet Union to research, film and collect instruments.

Within the busy cases, discreet film screens flicker and buzz with an assortment of films made during these ethnomusicological trips.

I watch African dances, Uzbek weddings, instrument making and concert footage. Stylishly designed directional speakers in the ceiling – like 1930s tin lampshades – contain and direct the music, eliminating cacophony.

"The films and sounds are important because they show instruments that appear simple are played in the most sophisticated ways to produce the most expressive kind of music and a variety of different sounds," says Margaret.

"In the late 1950s (curator) Jean Jenkins collected very widely in different countries and made recordings – she steered the collection towards Africa and Asia and collecting from musicians and musical makers, which is what we do now. We film, record and collect with anthropologists and with ethnomusicologists.

"We always try to capture video recordings showing the performance techniques of these instruments and the repertoire and cultural context of the performance."

An impressive display of drums and brasswind instruments, inlcudes vast trumpets. We watch the accompanying video showing them being played in a wedding procession in Uzbekistan. The musicians seem to be attempting to blow down the walls of Jericho.

This run of displays also integrates plenty of material from the museum's other Designated collection – the anthropological holding.

"While I was collecting instruments in Uzbekistan, my colleague Ken Teague in the anthropology department was acquiring a beautiful brocade jacket worn by the groom, and the bride's dress, and an ikat silk bride's dress. We put it in the showcase as well as the instruments," she explains.

a photograph of a display case with an ornately decoarted African lute

© Richard Moss / Culture24

We move on to a selection of bata drums played in Nigeria amongst Yoruba communities in naming ceremonies. "It's an enactment of the Yoruba creation myth," explains Margaret as we watch a video and listen to beating drums in which the rhythms interlock hypnotically.

Nearby are two horns made from ivory tusks. "When they were played there was this idea that the elephant was singing the praises of the King," she says. "They were used to imitate speech rhythms in tonal languages – rather like talking drums."

Adjacent is the collection of Arnold Dolmetch (1858 - 1940), the great pioneer of early music. "He was one of the first people to transcribe old manuscripts of music from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in libraries, and play them on old instruments," says Margaret.

"He also made copies of historical musical instruments, such as this clavichord and this lute."

Dolmetch was a great favourite of the literati, counting George Bernard Shaw as a particular champion.

"Shaw was very keen on his clavichords and wanted to promote them," reports Margaret. Today, Dolmetch is chiefly remembered for the revival in schools of the descant recorder.

Opposite the Dolmetch Collection, strange percussive sounds emanate from the doorway of the famous Horniman "Hands-on Space".

"We really wanted to communicate the message that musical instruments are made to make music, so that's why we thought it essential to have a room full of them." All are real musical instruments for people to play unsupervised.

For the less adventurous there are interactive recording tables playing recordings of many of the instruments on display.

Turning to a collection of musical instruments about religious ritual we settle on an intriguing selection of weather-beaten instruments, played in the West Galleries of English churches in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

a photograph of a display case with a drumkit in it

© Richard Moss / Culture24

Hovering in a corner is a battered cello made out of sheets of metal riveted and soldered together.

"This is a tin cello made in the late 18th century by a family called Smith," says Margaret. "It was played in St Lawrence's Church in Caterham, Surrey."

A similarly weathered bassoon and an old serpent (a bizarre twisting implement with brass keys made out of wood bound together with leather) sit nearby. This bizarre looking trio was designed to support the bass line of the choir and they conjure up a bucolic, Hardy-esque world of country churches and choirs.

"There are very nice accounts of serpents in Thomas Hardy's novels," concurs Margaret. "Under the Greenwood Tree, for example, documents the demise of the church bands and how the organ took over."

This showcase is dominated, though, by a huge lyre from Eritrea. “"It was used in Zar exorcism ceremonies to cure people who were afflicted with over-possessive spirits," says Margaret.

It's beautiful, with mirrors, charms, and amulets that would have been put inside the little bags to help the healing process and avert the evil eye.

We flit past Tibetan long trumpets and a conch trumpet with a bronze flag attached to it depicting the birth of the Buddha. There are tall drums and xylophones and a hypnotic film from Cameroon of villagers commemorating the death of tribal elders.

a photograph of a display case with drums and horns and a screen playing a film of tribal dancing

© Richard Moss / Culture24

In a case about the African Diaspora, with its collection of calimbas and gourd instruments, sits a magnificent early drumkit.

"It was made in London in the 1930s by the Carlton Company for American jazz," says Margaret. "Like jazz, the drumkit is a syncretic instrument with elements that originate from many different cultures and parts of the world.

"Although American jazz is indebted to African music, there is little in terms of material culture on the drums that is African. That is probably because people weren't allowed to own African instruments on the plantation, so what you have in the drumkit is the memory of their sound, rather than the instruments themselves."

The thematic arrangement then gives way to a slightly more academic arrangement of musical classification, perfectly balancing the populist and anthropological narratives of the preceding cases.

It's packed with everything from violins to saxophones and a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. "We want people to compare the instruments – there's a density to the displays, but it's very much bound up with people's culture."

A good example of the latter is a lute from Mongolia with a decorative horse head at its top.

"Mongolian people survive because of their horses," says Margaret.

"There's a legend that says the Mongolian spike fiddle was built out of a horse, so that's a motif you often find on that instrument. This one was presented to the Queen by an ambassador from Outer Mongolia in the early 1960s."

So what’s left? A lot more. There are displays of the Boosey and Hawkes collection and a fine selection of free reed instruments (accordions and squeeze boxes to you and I) as well as drawers containing the secondary collection.

"What's in here are some instruments that it's best to keep in the dark," says Margaret, producing a key and sliding open a drawer of flutes.

"This 19th century Giorgi flute is made of ebonite or vulcanite, rubber that has been hardened with a large proportion of sulphur." Vulcanite oxidises when exposed to light and heat, releasing sulphuric acid. The museum staff who suspended the flute from fishing line in its showcase in the 1960s were unaware of this potential time bomb.

"In the mid-1980s we found the flute one day lying at the bottom of its showcase, - the acid that had developed on its surface had dissolved the nylon monofilament. So now the flute kept in a vacuum tube in a closed drawer, to minimise further deterioration."

"Other instruments in drawers, such as this Native American turtle shell rattle, have an unstable structure and must be fully supported by a flat surface," explians Margaret. "Never in my wildest dreams when I joined the Horniman in the mid-1980s could I have imagined the extent to which professional standards in gallery design and mounting systems would improve in museums such as this one over the ensuing years."

I think Mr Horniman would have approved.

designation logo with photo of a woman looking at displays

For more stories from inside the Horniman Museum, visit our introduction to the Designated collection series.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share