When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired the 1701 “Servais” Stradivari cello in 1981, a curator at the museum sent a hand-delivered note to Mstislav Rostropovich, inviting him to come and try it out. Six weeks later the museum received a response from the celebrated cellist’s secretary. “Maestro Rostropovich does not believe in the incarceration of musical instruments in museums,” read the note. “He will not come.”
Kenneth Slowik, the artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, was then a young curator of the musical instrument collection and worked on the prized acquisition. “He came from a life where incarceration might mean something quite strong and personal,” says Slowik. “But that’s an attitude that’s shared by many people.”
More than four decades after Rostropovich’s rebuff, performances on museum instruments have become far more commonplace. Prior to the pandemic, the Smithsonian’s Axelrod Quartet of Strads was removed from its climate-controlled lockers for at least a dozen performances a year by the Axelrod String Quartet (of which Slowik is the cellist).
Similarly, a set of decorated Strads at Madrid’s Palacio Real is played monthly by the resident Cuarteto Quiroga in similarly controlled settings (the set is the only decorated quartet by Stradivari that was conceived as an ensemble). And the playable instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are heard at least once a year and “usually several times a year,” according to Jayson Dobney, the curator in charge of the department of musical instruments. “Yes, they’re not traveling the world,” he says. “[But] it’s not like they’re just locked up.”
Other museums favor a more stringent approach. In interviews, several curators said they routinely hear complaints from the public about instruments being locked in cages, condemned to silence. Even some luthiers and conservators express a certain ambivalence. “I have mixed feelings about these things,” says David Burgess, a violin maker in Ann Arbor, Michigan.“One way of looking at it is a musical instrument is to be strictly a musical instrument, and it’s tragic when it’s not played and heard.” But, he adds, “I know quite well that when instruments are out on the circuit or even played occasionally, there is inevitably deterioration.”
Burgess has some firsthand knowledge. Two of his own violins live in museums: the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Italy, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Reflecting a common scenario, only the Cremona violin is currently on view (sizable portions of museums’ holdings are in storage, though some curators insist that the most prized historic instruments remain on display).
Status Symbols to Storytelling
Critiques like Rostropovich’s have persisted even as curators find new means of exposure for their collections. Putting aside the fact that most museums today can rarely afford multimillion-dollar Cremonese stringed instruments, increasingly, museums are building online audio and video libraries of their collection highlights. Some are embracing new curatorial strategies. The Victorian-era approach of lining a gallery with dozens of competing status symbols has given way to a more educational, storytelling focus.
Bobby Giglio, assistant curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) says he is drawn to instruments less for their sheer aural or visual beauty than for their potential as historical artifacts or signposts of anthropology. “My viewpoint is that a musical instrument is an art object,” he says. “Not just the elaborately painted, 18th-century harpsichord, but also the very plain-looking 18th-century clavichord. Or the hichiriki from Japan, an oboe-like double reed instrument, which is not very ornamented. But we try and understand the tradition and context around it—the sense of associative value.”
Which instruments receive a white-glove treatment is subjective, Giglio admits. “It is murky, because people in positions in museums are the arbiters. We get to decide which musical instruments come into the collections and start to be called art objects, and that is a little fuzzy.”
The MFA has introduced various performance events since Giglio’s arrival in 2017, including Art in Tune, in which collection instruments are played at a dozen locations throughout the museum. Cremonese stringed instruments constitute a small fraction of its 1,300-piece holdings and include a “not particularly celebrated example of a Nicolò Amati violin,” Giglio says. “The price points of these instruments are astronomical, and many times out of reach for an institution.”
At the Met, Dobney and his staff periodically take out the 1693 “Gould” Stradivari, a violin that has been returned to a Baroque setup, for period instrument concerts, including recent ones by violinist Aisslinn Nosky and the Handel and Haydn Society, and Monica Huggett with members of Juilliard415. Other Strads, including the 1694 “Francesca” violin, 1711 “Antonius” violin, and 1714 “Batta-Piatigorsky” cello, have been used in performances in other Met settings, including the Friends of Musical Instruments, a salon series for annual donors of $5,000 and up.
Like the MFA, the Met’s curators seek to tell stories through its instruments. Among its most recent acquisitions is the 1782 “Royal George” cello by William Forster, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms of Great Britain, and a Stainer viola, described as one of the few surviving from the 17th century that has not been reduced in size. Both represent certain alternative histories. “How does the North German school or the Austrian school differ from the work that was happening in Cremona?” asks Dobney. “That’s sort of the narrative that we are interested in trying to tell more broadly. It wasn’t just the Cremonese story.”
Dobney disputes the belief that instruments need to be played to be kept alive. “I haven’t even heard a dealer say that in probably a decade,” he says. “There is some truth that when a player starts to play an instrument, there is a getting-to-know-you phase. But instruments are set aside for decades longer and they can ‘come back.’” Giglio suggests this use-it-or-lose-it notion is more of a “spiritual” conviction than one rooted in science.
Still, every performance will tax an instrument, and a museum’s responsibility is to preserve them in perpetuity. For this reason, luthiers and other experts are often consulted before a performance. “We’re definitely not a museum that locks things up and throws away the key,” says Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum (NMM) in Vermillion, South Dakota. “But when we tune an instrument up, we prefer to have somebody around who is a recognized luthier to just double-check things. If we were to subject an instrument to a very rigorous thing, like a recording project, we would CT scan it just to make sure things are the way we think they are. We don’t want to be the ones to tune it up and have the top collapse on us. That sort of thing can happen.”
Sheets points to a 1664 Andrea Guarneri tenor viola, acquired in completely original condition. “The body is just beautiful and untouched and has never been cut down,” she says. “But if you CT scan it, you see that the neck, scroll, and head are all like Swiss cheese because of wood worms. The risk of tuning that up is that the whole thing goes ‘poof,’ and you’ve got wood worm crumbs everywhere and a headless viola.”
A similar degree of scrutiny was required in 2005 when the NMM prepared its most celebrated possession: the c. 1560 “King” Amati cello, thought to be the oldest surviving cello and painted in the style of Limoges porcelain. A clip of the performance exists on YouTube. “If the painting goes away, what really makes it special goes away,” says Sheets. “That’s one where the equation is weighted more on preserving it for future generations than going out and running it like a racehorse and breaking its leg.”
With decorative jewels like the “King” or Stradivari’s “Spanish Court” quartet, the art versus utility debate comes into sharper focus. Conceived for occasional court performances by kings and emperors, they were never meant for the rigors of touring. “Sometimes the maker understood very well that an instrument has a destiny,” says Richard Walter, a curator at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. “It has been commissioned for the reason of status, public display, and showing what can be done in an artful fashion. Certainly, we like to think that the best makers don’t sacrifice their standards, but I think we all recognize balances of priorities.”
But instruments that do not rise to the level of art may be studied for their structural purity. For this reason, the National Music Museum’s most active users are makers of replicas. “If we can provide a young maker access to these wonderful instruments,” Sheets says, “that’s really the highest purpose I can think of.”
Museum curators ultimately face the contradictions of their profession—of balancing performance upkeep with the safeguarding of historical evidence. Slowik of the Smithsonian has seen many prized instruments move between the concert and museum circuits over the years, and the resulting wear and tear. “Many professionals would admit that they use up part of the nine lives of an instrument,” he says. “Maybe they don’t have the time ever to get them a real restoration until the end of their playing careers. Every restoration brings things that we hope will get the instruments in better shape. But it also can’t be denied that some things get destroyed.”
Slowik pauses to consider the delight and fulfillment that great stringed instruments bring, and recalls a phrase attributed to the Canadian instrument conservator Robert Barclay. “He argued that instruments should not be played for the mere pleasure of hearing them. Well, ‘mere’ is maybe the wrong adjective there. Otherwise, what are instruments for?”