Museums where music is part of the experience

“Ocarinas of the Americas” at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.
“Ocarinas of the Americas” at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.K.C. Cohen/President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

One often thinks of museums as houses of silent contemplation, where precious art and artifacts must be appreciated at library-quiet volume. Several local museums give the lie to this notion, showcasing music and musical instruments in unique and engaging ways.

The Museum of Science invites guests to become part of the music-making process with two interactive exhibits: musical stairs and a particle mirror. Designed by artist Christopher Janney and installed in 1989, the musical stairs produce a randomly generated tone with each step, while the algorithm governing the program ensures that the overall sound remains consonant.

Meanwhile, the particle mirror, a collaboration between Cambridge-based computer scientist/artist Karl Sims and audio software developer Bill Gardner that debuted this summer, lets visitors play with a series of digital particles, each of which has its own unique sound. A shower of sparkles makes twinkling noises when waved away, while hitting or kicking clumps of small colored balls produces a more percussive sound.

“It’s been incredibly popular,” says the museum’s vice president of exhibit development and conservation, Christine Reich. “During the weekends, you can walk down the corridor and you see crowds of 20 people . . . all participating and using the experience together. What you do interacts with the world, and that’s what we know our visitors love and want.”


While the Museum of Science would rather invent new instruments than collect old ones, most museums approach music from a more historical perspective. At Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, a temporary exhibit called “Ocarinas of the Americas” displays almost 80 of the small clay instruments, found at archeological sites across Central America and Mexico and shaped to resemble a remarkable array of animals and humanoid figures of symbolic import. There’s a video on the wall of Chicano scholar José Cuéllar playing the ocarinas while a complex speaker configuration fills the room with ocarina recordings. It’s an impressive collection, one which Harvard professor of Latin American studies David Carrasco attributes to “the centripetal power of the Peabody to magnetize and attract” such items.


The exhibit is somewhat anomalous for the Peabody; the museum displays less than .5 percent of its artifacts; and though it’s amassed more than 2,000 musical instruments, they are not considered a major priority.

“We don’t think in categories that way. We’re not a music museum, we are an ethnographic museum,” says Pamela Gerardi, deputy director of curatorial administration and outreach. “So it’s not that we collect a musical instrument because we’re specifically interested in the music of the place; we’re interested in music as an element of a culture.”

Kay Kaufman Shelemay, a Harvard professor of African and African-American studies, says that musical instruments can give us insight into everything from the technology and craftsmanship of a culture to its political and religious institutions. Playing the instruments, however, is usually off the table. It puts them at risk. As a museum, the Peabody is legally obligated to preserve artifacts for as long as possible. Even sturdier specimens, like the ocarinas, are generally played once, recorded for posterity, and then never played again.

“Everything we do here is a constant balance between being able to study the objects and being able to preserve them, and [those missions] are at odds with each other,” says Gerardi.


Perhaps no museum has worked harder to maintain that balance than the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1917, Boston businessman William Lindsey donated 560 instruments to the MFA in memory of his daughter, who had died in the Lusitania sinking. That donation started what would become one of the world’s largest musical instrument collections. It currently includes some 1,200 items. The MFA is celebrating the collection’s 100th anniversary on Oct. 19, with a concert featuring some of its instruments at the Lindsey Chapel, in Emmanuel Church (another recipient of Lindsey’s largesse).

It will be far from the first time the public has gotten to hear the museum’s instruments in action. For about 15 years, instrument curator Darcy Kuronen has hosted live demonstrations where professional musicians both play a museum instrument and discuss its historical and musicological importance. The demonstrations help Kuronen win over people who don’t see the point in keeping an instrument if it can’t be played.

“Musicians who encounter the collection, they only have one way of looking at it: ‘Does this play? Can I play it?’ If they can’t, they lose interest,” says Kuronen. “That’s partly what drives me to do the programs, to show that, under certain circumstances, they can be played.”

Kuronen holds the demonstrations in the musical instruments gallery, a small room which is the first exhibit visitors see upon entering the Huntington Avenue entrance. Since moving to this prime location, in 1983, the collection has seen a steady increase in visitor interest, to the point where it might no longer be the museum’s best-kept secret.


“I’ve been out in the gallery sometimes and people say, ‘Has this always been here?’ You can feel that they’ve been to the museum multiple times but they’ve never discovered it,” says Kuronen. “[Now] the gallery is almost bursting with too many people on busy days.”

Displays showcase instruments from various eras and cultures; a corner dedicated to 20th-century instruments, including an early electric violin and a striking sea-foam green guitar, has proven especially popular. At one point during our conversation, Kuronen sits at an ornate 18th-century French harpsichord, lifts the lid, and starts playing. The beautiful sound fills the room; and when he finishes, the surprised, delighted museumgoers applaud.

Of course the MFA still must take great precaution to protect its instruments. Many of the older ones are no longer playable; while some can be restored, for others the risk of damaging what is ultimately a work of art outweighs the potential benefits. Kuronen has also taken to using replicas for some demonstrations.

“Having stuff on view and sharing it with the public is always a double-edged thing; you want to share it, but the stuff is in our trust,” says Kuronen. “To preserve it for a thousand years is a big task.”

While very few museums collect musical instruments, Kuronen appreciates how they provide a lower barrier to entry than most of the visual arts; as he puts it, “A 10-year-old knows what a clarinet is.” It’s that broad appeal which has no doubt inspired local museums like the MFA to make room for music in their displays and exhibitions.


“Music is found in all cultures throughout the world and far back into history; it’s a universal language,” says Kuronen. “It speaks to people who know almost nothing about it; they just like it.”

Terence Cawley can be reached at terence.cawley@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley