Historical Musical Treasures Languish in Storage Vault

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A massive cache of musical treasures that’s grown to include a fragile harp-piano, the pioneering Moog synthesizer and the theremin used for The Green Hornet radio show has been shuffled over the years from a theatre to an unheated barn and now languish, rarely seen or heard, in a Michigan storage vault.

Spanning centuries and continents, the instruments worth at least $25-million (U.S.) by their chief caretaker’s estimate are packed and stacked in an out-of-the-way storage room with water-stained ceilings. It’s hardly the environment envisioned for them when Detroit businessman Frederick Stearns gave the University of Michigan the base of the collection a century ago with instructions that the instruments be exhibited – not invisible.

“The only way I can characterize it is Tut’s Tomb, because it’s been so forgotten about for so many years,” said Steven Ball, director of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments. “The collection has been in a holding pattern for 112 years. This is a national treasure – it deserves the dignity of either being properly housed… or to be dispersed in such a way that it could be.”

For many reasons, the Stearns Collection has never had a permanent home. Less than 1 per cent of the 2,500 items in the collection is displayed in exhibit cases at the university’s music school and nearby Hill Auditorium, but most of the keyboards, horns, drums, stringed instruments and other rare musical miscellany have had a nomadic journey.

At present, they’re in a vast room accessible by freight elevator in a building where workers manufactured classified optical and camera equipment during the Second World War. Cabinets are bursting with items, leaving many instruments stored on the floor. Along one narrow passageway is the 19th-century harp-piano, one of only a half-dozen known to exist, as well as a large Swiss-made music box from the same era and a group of African and Asian instruments.

Another section houses several saxophones by inventor Adolphe Sax. Newer additions include the first commercially produced Moog synthesizer and the theremin.

Their out-of-sight circumstances pain Mr. Ball, who has a copy of a letter Mr. Stearns wrote before donating about 940 instruments in the late 1890s.

“Under no consideration whatever however would I turn the collection over the university except with the understanding that it should be immediately housed and installed,” Mr. Stearns wrote. “I would not consent to it being packed away for some future regent to mount to suit themselves or to neglect entirely.”

His original donations were displayed in the outer lobbies of Hill Auditorium for decades, though Mr. Ball said the instruments were getting “baked to death” from sunlight through the windows. In the 1970s, the collection – much at that point relegated to cabinets – was cleared out of the auditorium and shipped to an unheated barn far from the central campus. There, hundreds of instruments were lost, stolen or destroyed, according to records Mr. Ball has reviewed.

University officials recently committed up to $400,000 to create a climate-controlled storage space for the collection. Mr. Ball is grateful for that but said it underscores the bigger challenge: finding millions more and figuring out how the collection can be seen, heard and experienced.

“For them to deteriorate and no longer be able to give joy to eye or ear in any way, that’s perhaps the greatest tragedy,” he said. --Jeff Karoub