Musical museum curators face dilemmas when they display instruments, as Ariane Todes discovers

How do you feel when you see a musical instrument in a case in a museum? Most people feel upset, according to Judith Dehail, as I discovered when I chanced on the annual conference of musical museum curators – it’s taking place concurrently with the amateur chamber music course I’m doing at the Manhattan School of Music.

As part of her research Dehail had asked visitors to the Leipzig Musical Instrument Museum this question and discovered that everyone felt frustrated by seeing instruments as untouchable objects deprived of their function, although some visitors are able to mitigate this by the awareness of the benefits. Her conclusion: ‘There is a global refusal to see the use value of an instrument annihilated and different strategies to deal with it.’ This is partly down to the ‘interference of the relationship to music’ – and she explained that it doesn’t happen with any other museum objects.

Museum curators talk of how an instrument’s ‘use value’ becomes a ‘symbolic value’ when it is in a case, whether that’s around being part of a musical period, a musician, or a technical production technique, and (as far as I understood) this transformation is the responsibility of the museum. I wondered if these symbolic values are something most string playing and making readers of The Strad already contemplate on a daily basis, though, anyway.

More was made of the contextualisation of instruments in the next talk, given by Frank Bär of the German National Museum. He discussed how museum design is moving more in this direction so that rather than have different galleries of art, furniture, fashion, musical instruments and so on, museums now have themes around which they base exhibitions – whether it’s social, thematic or historic, which his museum is currently developing. So, musical instruments are put in different contexts to show particular symbolic values, whether that’s problem solving, power, social status, political power or any other facet.

The benefits of this inclusive, lateral approach seem to be that they draw more people into the original world of the instrument and show us whole new perspectives on both history and on those chosen objects. But Bär cautioned of the ‘imminent danger’ in having to send instruments that don’t fit the themes into reserve collections. I can’t imagine many of us would be too happy about that, especially violin makers, for whom having access to instruments both famous and obscure is lifeblood. I wondered whether most luthiers would be hardly ‘upset’ at all by seeing a good violin in a museum as long as it’s well looked after.

This was a fascinating insight into some of the debates and arguments that the museum world is currently preoccupied with. Indeed there were nearly fisticuffs among delegates when Bär finished his talk by concluding, ‘We should never neglect the truly essential meaning of instruments – as tools to make music.’ There was much heated philosophical argument - is an instrument a tool? They’re probably still debating that now.