Victoria and Albert Museum to close its music collection

Courtesy of Benjamin Narvey of the Institute of Musical Research, I received the distressing news this morning that the Victoria and Albert Museum is to close its permanent collection of musical instruments. It seems that the collection will be split up and distributed among a number of smaller museums, depriving the capital of a central repository for this important collection.

Guy Dammann voiced his concerns about the dismantling of the collection in yesterday’s Evening Standard, but it seems that the V&A’s decision is final.

Unlike Brussels, Paris and New York, where national instrument collections are displayed centrally, London’s rich store of instruments is distributed among several smaller collections. The V&A’s collection, of international significance purely by itself, gains in importance in this respect because it is the only collection of historical musical instruments to be housed in a major national museum, thereby attracting general as well as specialist visitors.

Update (3 February): Richard Morrison furthers the debate in today’s Times:

The vital thing about having instruments on show at the V&A is that it draws the general public into the world of music and music history. And it also emphasises the vital connection between the visual arts and the aural arts. … the decision suggests that its bosses have an ignorant disdain for the history of the performing arts. Unless, of course, the performers are Kylie Minogue and Grace Kelly.

11 thoughts on “Victoria and Albert Museum to close its music collection

  1. It’s a tricky one. As things have been the instrument display has been closed almost all the time (other than one Wednesday a month, from memory) and I haven’t been able to see it on my previous half a dozen visits to the V&A. I also understand that the research side of this part of the collection has been underfunded for some time (I ordered a drawing from there some years ago and it wasn’t up to scratch; some much better ones were obtained from Oxford). So, I welcome the news that hopefully highlights the need for more resources to be devoted to the collection of instruments. As long as the instruments are available for research somewhere in Western Europe then it’s potentially very positive for the scholarly community. I also think there is an argument to say that they ought to be on public display, but the V&A has hardly been doing that. I go to that institution mainly for its innovative areas, and, it has to be said, for its fashion. So, bring on the pop-fashion gallery (I will be there!) and lets look forward to the instruments finding new homes.
    See, unlike Brussels, Paris and New York, I don’t think Londoners are so keen on this side of their culture. Certainly the V&A hasn’t been displaying the instruments in a particularly interesting manner, and this decision leave this open to a new organization with new ideas.
    I also was struck by the distortion of facts in the original circular, which you quote. ‘[I]t is the only collection of historical musical instruments to be housed in a major national museum’: rubbish. The V&A has a few hundred instruments. The British Museum has 3000, The Horniman 6000. Even the RAM has 250 and the RCM 600. Outside London I think of Oxford and its Ashmolean, Bate collection and Pitt Rivers Museum. These are all major national museums (especially the British Museum!). Now, I do see that perhaps the V&A has instruments of unusually good quality (probably, though I can think of exceptional plucked instruments here and there (the strad mandolins in the brit museum, for example) and for sheer decorative quality nothing beats the Brit Museum’s gittern), but there are plenty of instruments for the punters to see and the specialists will always go where the individual instruments are.

  2. It’s a while since I went to look at the V&A’s collection (years in fact), but then I just wandered in off the street. I hadn’t realised that access had changed so much. Hopefully at the very least redistribution might be able to help that.

    Point taken about the alternative museums.

  3. Good to read wardourcastlesummerschool’s comment, as he knows instruments. The thing about museums is that the public side is only the tip of the iceberg. Conservation and research, in the long term, is far more important than keeping tourists happy.

  4. The writer above (wardourcastlesummerschool ) mentions the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford as an example of a significant museum with a musical instrument collection.

    Sadly that collection met a fate similar to the one in the V&A. It too is closed!

  5. this must not happen – there is a limit to the nunber of frocks one can take in at a time! More to the point – there is no qualified musical conservator at the V and A – As I undersatnd it a lovely man who plays the lute has “baby sat” the collection.

    A similar decision was made at a major museum in the Hague (Geementemuseum) and the instruments remain unseen and neglected to this day…
    please can we get together and make a big “silent” protest at the V and A – I have goood media links and I thinks it is time to be “embarassing”

  6. The museum has made a lot of noise about intergrating instruments into other galleries and collections, but the last communication I had to my enquiries Damien Whitmore for Mark Jones) on the 21st made it clear that any such plan is hypothetical at present, not a done deal.

  7. ‘there is no qualified musical conservator at the V and A’. Right. In that case any move for the instrument’s can’t be that bad. Silent protests for musical instruments? Surely going to concerts and showing support for performances would be a better idea. I suggest spending time finding a new place with a good researcher and some resources.
    Personally, I’m drawn both ways. I love looking at musical instruments (I like hearing them too!). I also love museums that can display a collection to make it as good as it can be (the best I have ever seen is: I also like fashion exhibitions and that’s one reason I visit the V&A. Of course I would like to see an investment in the display of the instruments. I am also looking forward to something new. How exciting that things are changing!

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