PrintMail this page

conservation of musical instruments in the mim

In 1882, the Dutch musician and music historian Johan Cornelis Marius van Riemsdijk wrote about the then musical instrument collection in Brussels:

"What immediately captures the attention is the excellent state of repair in which the instruments are kept. One can see that old musical instruments are kept here not only for curiosity's sake. The spinnets and harpsichords are fully tuned and ready to be played; The strings are strung, and the same care is taken of the wind instruments. While, in ordinary museums, early musical instruments are almost always exhibited in an unplayable state, and one can merely gain an idea of their external form, rarely being able to study their internal construction, the visitor to this museum is able to discover what the instrument sounds like and how it is played.

There is a workshop attached to the museum where a skilled workman is constantly busy with maintenance and restoration of instruments. I was convinced that the person is more than a mere workman and has versatile knowledge of different musical instruments when, leading me around the museum, he drew my attention to many details which would otherwise have escaped me. This workshop also created new instruments from old models replacing instruments that have become unusable, or making copies of those the museum does not possess. Everything is thus geared to making the the collection as complete as possible."

The collection was then administered by the first curator, Charles Victor Mahillon, The "skilled workman" was Franz de Vestibule (° Ghent 13/04/1849 - Schaerbeek 2/10/1920).

This testimony demonstrates that the challenges to sound public management of a collection of musical instruments have not changed in 125 years. But the way we tackle those challenges has. Conservation is the first task, making the instruments available to visitors is the second. The balance between them is very delicate - the one seems to contradict the other. If you choose the instrument, then you had better lock it up in the best possible conditions in the warehouse. If the visitor takes precedence, then put the instrument on show and manipulate it in such a manner that the way it is played, the sound it makes and its context are clear. Every museum's policy is to try to eliminate this apparent contradiction. Some form of intervention, manipulation or restoration is almost always necessary, but how far do we go?

The CIMCIM group (Comité International des Musées et Collections d'Instruments de Musique) in the ICOM (International Committee for Museums of UNESCO), has established guidelines for restoration work on what they call "historic musical instruments retired from active service ". These guidelines have arisen from a specific vision. Every instrument is built to be played. Once incorporated into a public collection it is a passive object. But at the same time it has become part of the collective memory. Above all, the CIMCIM guidelines respect the object as evidence of an earlier or different culture, a musical practice and a construction tradition.

The CIMCIM guidelines help choices to be made. At the mim, we usually opt for limited intervention: we conserve every historic detail and respect the journey the instrument has made. Each successive step in the renovation process is important. Much depends on what will happen to the instrument. If it is put directly on display, then the identity of the instrument must be clear, even if this means extensive restoration. An African harp without strings and neck is not recognizable as a harp, so it is given a new neck and strings. If the instruments are in storage, we simply protect them from deterioration. These instruments are research objects and should be maintained in their original condition, free of interpretations, such as new parts or major repairs.

Exceptionally, instruments are still played. For several decades there has been great interest in historically based performances of early music. Musicians find it essential that early instruments are brought back to life.

The sound that instruments produce is their main aesthetic component - it is the reason why they are made. As Charles Moens shows in xxx, the recreation of a historically accurate sound using ancient musical instruments is often an illusion. But from a museum's point of view too, actually playing period instruments is not so easy. In 1882, Mahillon was certainly proud that his instruments were "completely ready to be played" (see above), but playing them inevitably leads to wear and tear. Making an instrument, playable, means replacing certain parts and some historical information is irretrievably lost. The tension between musicians and museum people sometimes cause bitter conflicts and accusations of missed opportunities, but the museum professionals are obliged to keep thinking of a musical instrument as a museum exhibit. At the mim we take the long term view. However great the temptation to enjoy the "old" sounds, we are obliged to keep the heritage that has been entrusted to us as undamaged as possible in order to pass it on to future generations. The main emphasis is on conservation rather than restoration.

Like most museums, the mim adheres to four basic principles of conservation and restoration:

1. The aesthetic, historic and physical integrity of the object is respected.
2. The quality of the restoration is not determined by the known value of the article. Every item in our collection will receive careful treatment.
3. If the results of the potential treatment techniques are not reversible, then we avoid such techniques. Treatment must essentially always be reversible. New parts receive a "mim" stamp.
4. Each treatment is the subject of a written report with photographs showing the state of the object and the materials and techniques used in its treatment. During work on instruments of great documentary value, the restorer makes detailed technical drawings.

Copies of instruments often offer an excellent compromise between the optimal preservation of historic instruments and being able to listen to the sound they make. Creating a copy requires a very thorough study of the original instrument and thus offers the possibility of a much better understanding of old construction methods and playing techniques

Recommended reading

- Robert L. Barclay (ed.), The Care of Historic Musical Instruments, Canadian Conservation Institute, Museums & Galleries Commission and CIMCIM, Edinburgh, 1997;
- Mia Awouters, "Preservation and restoration of musical instruments", Cultural heritage in Flanders, 2000 / 4, p. 10.11