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Two Collections Move Officers holding an instrument in a box in the RCM's Wolfson Centre

Museum blog: Bringing our collections back home

Thursday 9 June 2022

The reopening of the Royal College of Music Museum last autumn was just the beginning of the story. With only a fraction of the collection on permanent display, the Museum team began the process of retrieving over 14,000 objects of various shapes and sizes from their offsite storage facilities.

From a 1675 Neapolitan harpsichord, to miniature music boxes, these objects were all destined to return to the brand-new Wolfson Centre in Music & Material Culture.

The project was led by RCM Digital and Documentation Officer Richard Martin who introduces the project and our Collections Move Officers: 'As soon as our brand-new Museum opened to the public, it was time to begin the process of retrieving the remainder of the Museum’s musical treasures to the specially designed Wolfson Centre in Music & Material Culture. The new facility has a conservation workshop, climate-controlled on-site storage for the collections and a dedicated area for consultation, documentation and digitisation. I am delighted with the educational benefits that this new facility will provide for Royal College of Music students the College and its students and look forward to sharing this facility with an even wider audience in the future.’ 

RCM Collections Move Officers Ramiro Leite (RL) and Chiara Raponi (CR) share their experiences of unpacking the RCM Museum’s collections and setting up the new Wolfson Centre in Music & Material Culture.


What excited you about creating a new home for the rest of the RCM collections?

Ramiro Leite: As a music lover, the prospect of rehousing the Museum’s hidden treasures was extremely exciting. Opening each box and unwrapping the precious instruments and objects felt like Christmas had come early. After around six months of work, we are now in the final stages of making sure our instruments, paintings and iconography are all safely returned and stored.

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Chiara Raponi: The Museum’s collections are vast. I couldn’t wait to unlock the stories behind some of the items in our collections. There was so much to discover, from musical instruments and archival material to paintings and drawings.

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

CR: From a conservation perspective, some of the materials presented challenges. Parisian clockmaker Claude Laurent’s flute en cristal (glass flutes), for example, are as beautiful as they are fragile. Some are made of potash glass which is quite unstable and prone to deterioration so require special storage conditions. Other materials, like plastics used in 19th-century wind instruments, produce acidic vapours as they degrade. These could be potentially harmful to objects stored near them, but we used simple preventive measures to stop this and regularly monitor the condition of the objects.

RL: The abundance of instruments brought an abundance of challenges! Making best use of space while ensuring we could accommodate each new delivery were probably our biggest challenges. The whole process was a lesson in flexibility as instruments come in many different shapes, sizes and conditions. Our approach had to be adaptable whilst keeping some order to the type of instruments, dates and places of origin. We also had to think carefully about how each item should be mounted, be it in a drawer, a box or on a shelf.

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Before ordering the objects by date and place, we had to check the condition of each object. We put a great deal of care and attention into maintaining best practices for handling our objects, from delivery to condition checking, to rehousing them in their permanent new home.

What treasures did you unearth?

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RL: As a guitarist, I knew my attention would be drawn to the stringed instruments such as a beautiful guitar by Joachim Tielke, with intricate carvings in ebony and ivory. Likewise, the stunningly decorated neck of a guitar by Giovanni Tesler (c.1620). What really captured my imagination was discovering so much variety in the collections. It gave me amazing insights into the ideas and imaginations of instrument makers from every corner the world. In some cases, you can see the way the makers had found solutions to the questions musicians pose every day: 'Could you add more strings? I need one more key! Is there an easier way to reach this note?' I like to imagine that conversations like these between musicians and makers were the reason behind the creation of instruments like the octavin which combines systems from a clarinet and an oboe, or the short-lived triple-flageolet in our collection!

CR: From the painting and iconography collection I enjoyed uncovering a posthumous portrait of Sarah Anna Glover, educator and inventor of the Norwich sol-fa system. My other stand out finds include the 1894 costume design for a Basil Crage pantomime and a touching goodbye card signed by Lilian Baylis (once manager of the Old Vic) to English baritone, opera producer and RCM singing teacher Clive Carey before his departure to become Director of Singing at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.

Supporting the recant of the Museum collections has been an incredible journey. Every object had one or more stories to tell. As a trained conservator I was fascinated to discover the materials used to make each object, and the craftsmanship behind the intricate designs. I liked connecting the physical object to its non-physical aspects such as their sound, their place within history of music, the musicians that played them, the audiences that listened to them and more.

Why is it important that the collections are back in their RCM home?

RL: There is so much to discover in the Museum’s collection. It’s great that these instruments are finally back in the College and available for closer study and research.

CR: The relocation of the RCM collections has been a fantastic opportunity to make these objects accessible whilst protecting them. I hope we have contributed towards a space for students, researchers and members of the public to come and engage with the collections and be inspired by them.

More information about the Wolfson Centre in Music & Material Culture can be found here

Enquiries and bookings for the Wolfson Centre can be made via the Museum team on museum.info@rcm.ac.uk