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Touchy Questions for a Museum's Rare Instrument Collection

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In 1981, a donor gave the 1701 “Servais” Stradivari cello to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. One of the curators at the time sent a hand-delivered note to legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich asking if he’d like to come try out the Strad. Two months later, the museum received a note from the cellist’s secretary. “Maestro Rostropovich does not believe in the incarceration of musical instruments,” the note read. “He will not come.”

Rostropovich’s curt response – though a bit extreme -- illustrates the way many string players feel about the beautiful instruments in museums’ glass cases. In the musical instrument gallery at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Strads, Amatis and other string instruments by famous makers are rarely played. The way the Met balances preservation with performance illustrates an ongoing debate about the purpose of musical instruments in museums and the value of performance, both for the public and for the well-being of the instruments themselves.

“Our main focus is to preserve the instruments, and like any other object in the world, if you use it, then you have to replace parts, so then you have to replace the original hand of the maker,” said Ken Moore, curator of musical instruments at the Met. “It’s like any other object -- you use it, and it’s going to be used up.” The Met has 5,085 musical instruments in its collection, about 200 of which are European string instruments and bows.

Although musicians do occasionally play the Met’s instruments – any given violin might get played three times a year – Moore believes that preservation is the essential role of the museum. “You have to have an example for people to rebuild instruments in the way the instruments were originally built,” said Moore. “We try to have the evidence of the past available for the present and hopefully for the future.”

The Met’s approach is different from that of other museums and represents a fundamental divide within the preservation field. “I think there is a basic philosophical difference between what the Met does and what we do,” said Kenneth Slowik, artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society and curator of musical instruments at National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian’s instruments are played regularly, including in the museum’s concert series, said Slowik. The series often features the same players, performing on instruments they’ve played in the past. “We try to have not drive-by encounters with these instruments, but have people who get to appreciate them over a period of years,” he said.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the musical instrument collection at the Library of Congress, which has a collection of about 2,000 instruments and an immense archive of musical reference materials. For the Library, some decisions on performance are based on the bequest of the donor. For example, in 1935, one donor gave a group of three Strad violins, one viola, one cello and five Tourte bows, and provided an endowment assuring that they would be maintained and performed on in the future. 

There is widespread agreement that string instruments sound better when played regularly. “There is a diminishing of musical quality when instruments aren’t used at all,” said William Monical, a violin restorer who lives and works on Staten Island. “It’s like the atrophy of the human body when someone doesn’t walk.” The curator of a collection of violins in Cremona’s Town Hall plays the violins daily, said violinist Eric Grossman, curator of string instruments at the Juilliard School. “The more instruments are played and the more their molecular structure is resonating, the better they sound,” said Grossman. 

Moore, the Met curator, argues that an instrument doesn’t need to be played daily to keep its sound. “I like to think of them as going to sleep,” he said. “When a performer comes, our instrument will sound awful if it hasn’t been played for a year, and after 45 minutes of playing, something happens.”

Violinist Sean Carpenter, who played Bach solo works on the Met’s 1694 “Francesca” Strad at a concert, experienced the awakening. “By the time I finished playing it really did take off in sound, and improve dramatically,” he said. 

Juilliard’s Grossman – who waxes poetically about what he calls the “silky, golden, extraordinary” sound of the Met’s 1717 "Antonius" Strad -- argues that while preservation certainly matters, performers can usually play old instruments without damage or harm. “If a few instruments are kept away from players, I understand, but I think predominately these instruments can still be played without doing harm,” he said. “If you quarantine an instrument for long periods of time, the waking up of the instrument may take longer.”

The Met hasn’t always been so focused on preservation. In 1960s, in the wake of the destruction of World War II, the philosophy of conservation changed, said Moore. When UNESCO was formed, the organization set up subcommittees for museums. The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Musical Instruments, known as CIMCIM, provided a forum for curators to discuss ethical issues of preservation and performance, leading to a greater focus on the importance of preserving instruments for posterity.

Although Rostropovich would certainly disapprove, most curators believe there is room for – and value in – both approaches. “Are we keeping these instruments as fresh as possible for future generations, or do these instruments not fulfill their artistic destiny until they are under the chin of an artist?” said Kerry Keane, head specialist for musical instruments at Christie's. “I don’t think we’ll ever answer that question, and I’m happy with that.”

Photos (top-bottom):

The Met's 1669 Nicolò Amati violin, currently on display in the musical instrument gallery (Corrine Ramey)

Visitors look at the Met's 1714 "Batta-Piatigorsky" Stradivari cello (Corrine Ramey)

Visitors look at the Met's collection of viola da gambas (Corrine Ramey)

Sean Carpenter plays the Met's 1694 "Francesca" Stradivari in the musical instruments gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Don Pollard)