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Musical Instruments

Appleton Pipe Organ

The Museum's collection of musical instruments includes approximately five thousand examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. It illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. Selected for their technical and social importance as well as for their tonal and visual beauty, the instruments may be understood in a number of ways: as art objects, as ethnographic record, and as documents of the history of music and performance.

What's On View

More than eight hundred objects are displayed in The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, with one hall devoted to Western instruments, arranged by type or family, and the other to non-Western instruments, grouped geographically. Among the treasures on display are the oldest extant piano, by Bartolomeo Cristofori (Florence, 1720); an important American pipe organ, by Thomas Appleton (Boston, 1830); famous violins by Antonio Stradivari; guitars that belonged to the great Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia; rare Asian and African instruments made of precious materials; and exquisite instruments from the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

While the collection is encyclopedic, particular strengths include European and American keyboards, wind instruments from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth century, and many types of instruments from non-Western societies. The basic instrument types, or classifications, are: aerophones, which generate sound through the vibration of air; chordophones, through the vibration of strings; membranophones, through the vibration of a stretched membrane; and idiophones, which are made of naturally sonorous materials that require no additional tension to produce sound. A fifth type, electrophones, generate sound electronically or through amplified means.

Related Events

The special nature of a collection of musical instruments requires a balance between the imperatives of conservation and those of interpretation, publication, teaching, and performance. Many of the instruments are playable and can be heard in concerts and on recordings, as well as in lecture-demonstrations by leading musicians that are offered periodically throughout the year. An Audio Guide provides musical excerpts along with narration about the instruments' functions, symbolism, decoration, and technology. From September through June, performances on instruments from the collection are offered on the first Wednesday of each month (free with Museum admission).

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Schumann String Quartet Op. 41 No. 3 Finale, performed by the Amphion Quartet in the Musical Instruments galleries on October 5, 2011

History of the Department

The collection originated in 1889 with gifts of several hundred European, American, and non-Western musical instruments from Lucy W. Drexel (in the name of her husband, Joseph W. Drexel, a president of the New York Philharmonic Society and trustee of the Museum) and from Mrs. John Crosby Brown. Mrs. Brown continued to donate musical instruments to the Museum until her death in 1918, by which time some four thousand items had been catalogued and placed on display. The assemblage, already the largest and most comprehensive of its kind outside Europe, was initially administered by the Department of Decorative Arts; in 1933, when the Department of Renaissance and Modern Art split off from Decorative Arts, the collection of instruments went with it. In 1942, the collection was made a subdepartment supervised by the Museum's director, and, in 1948, the autonomous Department of Musical Instruments was formally established, with Emanuel Winternitz (1898–1983) as its first curator. The collection has continued to grow along the heterogeneous lines established by Mrs. Brown in the late nineteenth century.

Renovation and Reinstallation

First donated in 1971 by Clara Mertens in memory of her husband, the preeminent impresario, The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments were most recently reinstalled in 2010.

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Musical Instruments Blog

Curators and guests share information about the collection, history, and activities of the Department of Musical Instruments.

Conversation with a Curator—Tabla, Musical Instruments
August 14, 2014
Free with Museum admission

Last updated: Monday, July 28