To create “A Curious Symphony,” her exhibition at the Boston Children’s Museum, artist Floor van de Velde ferreted through the museum’s collection. Most children’s museums don’t have collections, but the Boston Children’s Museum’s trove numbers near 50,000 objects, including an impressive selection of musical instruments.
“We were pulling out these wooden trays. Some things were not labeled correctly. Some had not been out in years,” says van de Velde.
To be clear, the instruments, displayed in vitrines, are not to be touched. They include a tattered balalaika, a Victorian music box, and an 800-year-old Peruvian clay whistle that looks more like a double-barreled drinking flask. There are also sound-related objects, such as a victrola speaker. Van de Velde has built a multi-part exhibition around the display, designed to expose visitors to the wide variety of sounds and objects that make up music around the world.
It includes listening booths equipped with 1950s-era rotary phones, a wheel-like sculpture made of old piano keys, hammers from the same piano on a spinning sculpture, and reproductions of a variety of musical instrument patents, some dating back more than a century.
Van de Velde is best known for light-based installations she does on her own, and light and sound works she makes with Elaine Buckholtz, as Nighthouse Studio. Working with music, though, she returns to her roots. The South African artist is the daughter of an orchestra conductor.
“I grew up in the orchestra,” she says. In addition to viola, she plays clarinet and classical percussion, although her father could never sell her on learning a brass instrument. With the orchestra, she led a nomadic childhood, traveling widely in South Africa and Europe.
“A Curious Symphony” takes its name from the soundtrack van de Velde designed for the exhibition, which includes Malayan guitar, Javanese bells, and Vietnamese flutes. Many of the musical samples she found in the Smithsonian Folkways collection.
“Ethnomusicologists might have a problem with it. It’s mixed with no rhyme or reason,” the artist says. “I wanted to take sounds that might be foreign to kids, with timbres and textures they might not be used to. Putting it together was like weaving a basket – each strand a different sound.”
The listening booths are wooden hybrids of old phone booths and telephone desks. Van de Velde has hacked the rotary phones to insert amplifiers, which play a second soundtrack, featuring children’s songs from all over the world.
“We love the old-school phone. It’s a nostalgic object that kids know, but don’t [usually] see.” says Alice Vogler, the museum’s arts program manager. “The little ones will pick it up. I wonder at what point in a few years will they not know what it is?”
The museum has dedicated a special gallery to art exhibitions since 2007.
“We get to families that don’t go to the Institute of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Fine Arts,” says Vogler. “We work with all our artists to have some interactive element, whether they want it or not. It’s powerful to see how kids respond. When they’re drawn to touch something, it’s a compliment. Otherwise, they’re walking by and not seeing it.”
“In an adult gallery, you have to be more careful,” says van de Velde. “Kids are a little bit like elephants – they’ll break everything. Pedestals are screwed to the floor. The booths are triple-glued.”
Then there’s that piano-key sculpture. Vogler initially proposed putting it in a case, van de Velde says. The artist argued against it.
“These are keys that have been played since the late 1880s,” she says. “The parts are sturdy.”
Children passing through tinker with the wooden keys, which fan around in a circle like sunrays. They can’t be moved too far, but there’s something thrilling about touching and pushing at them – and not just because touching art is usually verboten. It’s an entirely different way to experience the sculpture. In a perfect world, art would be touched as well as seen.
The two piano sculptures – the first made with keys, the second with hammers – display the nuts and bolts of a complex instrument, as does each patent drawing. “A Curious Symphony,” in a loose and improvisatory way, seeks to deconstruct the experience of music: Here are the bells; here are the whistles. But just as van de Velde takes it apart, she puts it all back together, to her own liking, making associations that suit her fancy.
The exhibition, like that layered soundtrack from all over the world, is quirky. “It doesn’t really make sense,” she says. But that should be the point of any exhibition at a children’s museum: to free associate, to play, and to find your own sweet spots.