At Home With Music sings a song of bygone performances at the Horniman Museum

By Culture24 Reporter | 31 January 2014

A new permanent display reveals a key part of the Horniman collection which has been somewhat overlooked until now

A photo of a woman playing a piano
Jane Chapman performs live on the 1772 Kirckman at the Horniman© Ludovic des Cognets / Horniman Museum and Gardens
From Flemish virginals built in 1555 to a portable piano taken by Captain Scott on his first Antarctic expedition in 1901, it might come as a surprise to those familiar with the Horniman Museum – usually more celebrated for its ethnographical and natural world collections – to learn that the south London collection includes an almost unsurpassed range of keyboard instruments.

Putting these ancient artefacts in harmony with more from the V&A, their new exhibition, At Home With Music, has been funded by a £90,000 Arts Council grant recognising its importance.

At the opening, a carefully restored 1772 Kirckman harpsichord was used to stirring effect by Jane Chapman, who performed pieces from a special competition for composers and esteemed works by Bach and WH Bird.

“This instrument will become a focus for lecture demonstrations, master-classes and concert performances,” says Mimi Waitzman, the lead curator for the exhibition, discussing the Kirckman.

“Keyboard instruments form an integral and familiar part of our musical life, both past and present. Yet of all the Horniman’s significant musical collections, keyboard instruments have been among the most under-represented in the Music Gallery.

“At Home With Music will go some way towards redressing that imbalance, providing us with an opportunity to showcase some rare and exquisite examples from both our own and the V&A’s collections.

“Videos, drawings and explanations included in the display will get inside the instruments to show how they work.

“But their design does not just display technical innovation. Style and decoration represent the artistic ideas of their creators, representing moments in the history of fashion and taste."

Made by Annibale de Rossi, the virginals are the oldest exhibits here. An 18th century bureau organ was built by Swiss-born 18th century master John Snetzler, one of the characters behind an exhibition Waitzman says will relay the personalities of the musical ghosts running through it.

“How people used keyboards, not only for private practice and tuition, but also in the rituals of courtship and status, can tell us more about past perceptions of love, marriage and social aspiration.

“They can also represent social, political and even religious upheaval, acting as statement pieces for their owners and giving us an insight into contemporary minds.

“One of the instruments itself, a late 18th-century English harpsichord, has been restored to playing condition so that it can speak to us directly.

“The new display speaks to us on many levels. It makes us realise how intimately music figures in our everyday lives and that our music actually helps us define our idea of home.

“A remarkable variety of keyboard instruments have kept us company throughout history. They came in and out of fashion, entertaining us, expressing feelings and even consoling us.”

There has been more music to the ears of organisers at the Forest Hill venue this week. Curators will create a new area at the entrance to the Natural History Gallery after winning a £70,000 DCMS grant, allowing specimens from its recent Bioblitz review to be shown under a Nature in Fashion theme expected to open in spring 2015.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to put more of our stored collection onto public display and to share our finest natural history ‘treasures’ with our visitors,” says Jo Hatton, the keeper of Natural History.
“The new display will include spectacular taxidermy specimens, Horniman butterflies and beetles – named for our founder Frederick Horniman – and fabulous fossils.”

The award is part of a wide range of investments announced by the government and the Wolfson Foundation. A refurbishment of the King’s State Apartments at Kensington Palace, improvements to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford Upon Avon and a redevelopment of the Roman Gallery at Segedunum Roman Fort are among the other projects to benefit.

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A photo of an ancient piano with black and brown colourings
The permanent display features on keyboards from parlours to palaces© Ludovic des Cognets / Horniman Museum and Gardens
A photo of a group of people watching while a woman plays a piano inside a gallery
Performances took place at the opening event© Ludovic des Cognets / Horniman Museum and Gardens
A photo of a man in a suit giving a speech inside a musical display within an art gallery
Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Chair of Arts Council England, praised the project© Ludovic des Cognets / Horniman Museum and Gardens
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