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A violinist and harpist from the RCM perform on stage in the wood-paneled lecture theatre at Kensington Central Library

Museum blog: On a journey of discovery

Monday 3 June 2019

Every journey starts somewhere. As we closed the door of an empty museum in December 2015, temporarily saying goodbye to the last of our collections as they were packed and sent off to storage, we felt ready for an adventure.

In the classical music and museum sphere our collection was well-known and appreciated, but our general visitors often described our museum as an undiscovered gem, a treasure trove of musical heritage that they’d been delighted to stumble across.

Our challenge was obvious: how could we share our wonderful heritage with people who didn’t know they were interested yet, and encourage them to discover more in our brand new museum? A Museum Roadshow was born.

For most people, the idea of taking our museum on the road conjured up the mental image of our team driving an RCM-branded minibus full of precious musical objects from town to town. Lots of museums have done this; in 2015 the Oxford Museum of Natural History in 2015 took their famous Oxford Dodo on a ‘Dodo Roadshow’ from Land’s End to John O’Groats in just one week, visiting museums and galleries on the way. On the other hand, we are making specific trips to carefully chosen locations, taking items from our collection that best suit each event.

Many of our objects are incredibly important pieces of world heritage. Whilst most audiences can get their heads around the RCM having the world’s oldest guitar (an instrument almost every human being would recognise), how do we get people excited about the unfamiliar? The clavichords, spinets, citterns and pochettes of our history?

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Developing and testing our stories has been a key part of the way we rise to this challenge. We’ve shared stories about instrument inventions, like the upright harpsichord, the first instrument to combine a keyboard with strings – an innovation that completely changed the musical sound world of Western music thereafter.

Likewise we’ve shared stories of instruments inventions, like the baryton, that had ‘15 minutes of fame’ but never quite caught on and disappeared. We’ve shared human stories of craftsmen and their skills, wealthy European families who used instruments as status symbols, the humble dancing master and his pocket violin, and we’ve got so many more stories to tell.

We’ve also shared different kinds of music with people through concerts and events featuring our fabulous student musicians. Families discovered music from the past in the corridors and secret rooms of the Southbank Centre on a heritage trail. Visitors to Mottisfont Abbey were transported into the sound world of the period during concerts on historical instruments. Some of our Roadshow visitors have even brought to tears whilst hearing our students play in pop-up performances.

Our Roadshow hasn’t just been a journey of discovery for our visitors.

This past December we popped up at Kensington Central Library and I was surprised to discover how libraries have become important community hubs, with free services like computer courses, toddler sessions, health events, help with school homework and even a blood pressure machine!

Kensington Central Library is a beautiful Grade II listed building, and perhaps the most extraordinary discovery was their hidden-away lecture theatre. Entering it felt like stepping into the 1960s, with floor to ceiling wood-panelling, red patterned carpet and black, cinema-style seats complete with ashtray attached.

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The amazing architecture and interior design proved the perfect setting for a roadshow display called Music is Craft. These stories focus on visually impressive, exquisitely-made instruments, providing a window in different periods of time when instrument makers showed off an incredibly high standard of craftsmanship both in terms of design and decoration. Precious materials, carved heads, ornate patterns and beautiful paintings tell us inside stories of aristocratic one-upmanship.

Does covering an instrument with decoration affect the sound of an instrument? Well that’s a story for another time!

We learned a lot from members of the local community, particularly through our Roadshow survey. 90% of people we engaged with had never  seen instruments that looked like these before, which seem unique next to the instruments we see around us today. Every person we spoke to learned something new from our display.

After our survey was over, so many stayed chatting with us to talk more about our collections, to hear our student’s stories (who are such passionate ambassadors for music) or to share their own personal stories, emotions and memories. Our students were even encouraged to perform in the library rooms through the day. Shh? Not in this library!

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We’ll be sharing more of our stories and aim to meet as many people as we can as our journey continues. We have two visits coming up to The Red House, Aldeburgh and Leith Hill Place in August, and if you work in a venue and are interested in being a Roadshow partner then do get in touch! Watch out for more details and join us on our journey if you can!

For more information or to enquire about partnership please contact Lydia Baldwin, Museum Learning & Participation Officer (lydia.baldwin@rcm.ac.uk).

 

Lydia Baldwin
Museum Learning & Participation Officer

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