Behind the Scenes in the Musical Instrument Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
I had the good fortune to spend an evening recently with Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator of Musical Instruments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Jayson may be the only academic studying percussion instruments and his credits are impressive. In addition to being an accomplished percussionist, the work he did for his master's degree "Innovations in American Snare Drums" 1850-1920, M.M. Thesis (Vermillion: University of South Dakota, 2003) has allowed him to accumulate a tremendous amount of knowledge about drums of all kinds, including rope drums, among other things, the principal focus of this blog.
Jayson is a graduate of the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion, South Dakota, where he earned a bachelor of music degree with a double major in music education and piano performance. He twice won the University's piano concerto competition, performing with the university orchestra in 1996 and 2000. He has collaborated with many other musicians in state, regional, and national competitions.
He has also been a teaching assistant at the University of South Dakota while he pursued a master of music degree in the history of musical instruments. He has worked with scholars and the collections of America's Shrine to Music Museum, a world-renowned collection located in Vermillion, S.D. And he served internships at the National Museum of American History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Musical Instrument Department.
In 2003-4 Jayson had a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he worked to create an annotated checklist of the percussion instruments in the MMA’s musical instrument collection, with an emphasis on nineteenth- and twentieth-century drums.
About six months ago, Jayson visited my "vault" where I store some of my collection of rope and other drums. He has had his head in some of my old drums shells, once exclaiming excitedly, "hey, this is a Soistmann" upon finding a handwritten pencil signature inside a drum that he appeared to be wearing like a motorcycle helmet.
So, last week I visited him and he took me into the museum's “vault” where musical instruments of all kinds are stored while waiting to be exhibited or just as specimens of original instruments for study purposes by researchers.
Among the drums in storage is a Civil War eagle drum that’s been at the museum since 1898, possibly untouched by restorers (except, as Terry Cornett of Alabama recently observed, for the relatively recent appearance of three leather ears that can be seen in the photo below as the third, fourth and fifth ears, not present in an earlier photo) since it arrived, all original! The paint job is near perfect and up close, brush strokes are clearly visible. Three screw holes in the bottom counterhoop and a dirt outline marked the place that a long-gone snare strainer was once affixed.
The leather pulls were the most interesting part for me. These pulls look like the maker took a rectangular piece of leather about 1-1/2” x 4”, folded it in half and then ran a leather lace (like shoe lace) through two holes on each side of the fold, making a square knot and leaving it at that – very simple.
I also attended a discussion sponsored by The Amati (Friends of the Department of Musical Instruments) titled "Seen or Heard". Speakers were curator Kenneth Moore and conservator Susana Caldeira of Department of Musical Instruments at the Met, and Eric Grossman, Curator of String Instruments, The Julliard School. There is much common ground with drums and many of the same issues -- store or restore, play or don't play, replace consumables or not (viz. strings on string instruments; snares, ropes and pulls on rope drums). And, as in the world of rope drums, there are many views.
My take-away was an understanding of a museum's important role in preserving musical instruments (as other historical objects) in their original state for future study, replication, and even perhaps occasional playing. Preservation allows interested researchers to see actual specimens of genuine articles decades or centuries after original manufacture. Although some would criticize museums on the ground that they don’t display everything they have, one should consider that that is neither possible nor necessarily desirable. Also, many museums allow serious researchers access to their stored assets under controlled but reasonable conditions. That’s a fine trade-off for the important role museums serve in preserving instruments that otherwise could fall into the hands of restorers of varying degrees of skill who, despite good intentions, might destroy forever the only evidence of original condition in existence.
The discussion was followed by a short concert by The Juilliard School's Attacca Quartet playing "String Quartet in G major, K. 387" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the Met's violin "Francesca", made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona, Italy, ca. 1694 (played by Keiko Tokunaga), and its violin "Antonius" (pictured below), made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717 (played by Amy Schroeder), as well as The Juilliard School's 1699 Giovanni Grancino viola (played by Gillian Gallagher) and 1719 violincello "Duke of Marlborough", made by Antonio Stradivari (played by Andrew Yee).
What a sound! Each player spoke about his/her experience in playing the 300-year old instrument. There were about 50 people in attendance and a reception followed.