The musical instruments collection at the Metropolitan Museum originated with gifts in 1889 of several hundred European, American, and non-Western instruments from private collectors Joseph W. Drexel and Mrs. John Crosby Brown. Mrs. Brown continued to give musical instruments to the Museum until her death in 1918, by which time some 4,000 items had been catalogued and placed on display, making the assemblage the largest and most comprehensive of its kind outside Europe.
The collection continues to grow along the lines established by Mrs. Brown – to illustrate the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras, including typical examples from non-Western societies and rare masterworks by famous European makers. It now holds 5,000 examples from six continents, dating from prehistory to the present, a scope unsurpassed by any other collection in the world. The instruments may be approached in a number of ways – as art objects, ethnographic evidence, and as documents of music history.
More than 800 instruments from the collection are displayed in The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, which opened in 1971 and were donated by Clara Mertens in memory of her husband, the preeminent impresario. Smaller exhibitions also are mounted there occasionally.
The Mertens Galleries comprise two halls, one devoted to Western instruments, arranged by
type or family, the other to non-Western instruments, grouped geographically. The Audio Guide, available in the Great Hall, provides musical examples with narration about the instruments' functions, symbolism, decoration, and technology.
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 Stradivari violins; Andrés Segovia's guitars; rare Asian and African instruments made of precious materials; and exquisite instruments from Renaissance- and Baroque-era courts.
The staff of the Department of Musical Instruments balances the imperatives of conservation with interpretation, publication, teaching, and performance by leading musicians. Many of the instruments are playable and can be heard in concerts and on recordings, as well as in lecture-demonstrations.
Trained volunteers give regularly scheduled tours of the gallery and from October to May the Appleton organ may be heard in recital on the first Wednesday of each month. Special visits for school groups are available through the Education Department.
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