How do you best display 15,000 unique musical instruments?
That is one of the major challenges the staff of the National Music Museum had to overcome and on Monday, Oct. 5, Matt Collinsworth, the director of the museum, shared what’s in store at the museum with the Vermillion City Council.
“There is no way, in the space that we’ve been provided, that we can show them all, so, how are we going to organize them and present a nice, narrative art for a visitor?” he said. “We eventually arrived at organizing the content into three different sections or neighborhoods.”
Construction of a new addition at the facility is nearly complete and the focus has now turned to remodeling the interior of the existing museum structure which originally served as the Carnegie Library at the University of South Dakota. This portion of the museum, once renovations are complete, will house 13 permanent exhibitions.
The galleries will also look significantly different than they did before the renovation took place.
“In those spaces comes the third construction project that’s going to happen over the next year or so and this is our new permanent exhibitions,” Collinsworth said. “We’re going to be installing 13,000 square feet of new permanent exhibitions in those 13 galleries in Carnegie.”
He gave the Vermillion City Council a “walk through” of what’s envisioned in those galleries through a slide presentation.
The exhibitions are being designed and created with the expertise of Luci Creative, of Chicago, Illinois.
“They’ve done a fantastic job working with us,” Collinsworth said. “This is not an easy design project.”
Neighborhood 1 will take up most of the museum’s ground floor and will explore the roles that musical instruments play in our lives.
“That’s the way that we want to draw visitors into the subject matter … what we want the visitors to do is reflect on how they encounter music and musical instruments,” Collinsworth said. “How does it play an impact on their lives and how has it played an impact on the lives of people throughout history?”
Neighborhood 2 will be known as “Instruments As Innovation.”
“This has a little bit more science. We talk about acoustics, innovation and invention; how do sounds waves work, how is design influenced by the needs of performers, etc.,” he said.
Neighborhood 3 will be known as “Instruments as Art and Craft.”
“To a large extent, the things in our collection are beautiful objects in their own right and this is where we’re going to look at them as art and as examples of fine craftsmanship,” Collinsworth said.
People will start their visit to the museum first by entering its new lobby and then by moving to “Neighborhood 1” on the first floor.
“We think we’ll have a little bit of interactivity there (in the lobby) with some instrument shapes on the limestone walls,” he said. “It will look seamless, they’ll make sounds. It’s a cool idea just to get people thinking and prepared for entering the exhibitions.”
The first gallery a visitor will enter, if they’re following the map, is the introductory gallery where we have a media piece, a video with some directional sound that sets the stage for what people are going to encounter through the exhibitions, he said.
“Also, in here we’ll have an exhibition of percussion from around the world and brass from around the world,” Collinsworth said, “so we’ll be introducing a lot of non-Western instruments and some really visually stunning pieces, getting people warmed up for what they’ll see next.”
The second zone of Neighborhood 1 will be located in the rear of the first gallery.
“This is about personal expression. This is an area where the objects that visitors will see aren’t important for who made them or necessarily how beautiful they are, but they will be important because of who played them,” he said. “So, you might see Johnny and June Carter Cash’s guitar here, some celebrity objects or some instruments with some really impactful backgrounds,” he said. “There will also be the first interactive opportunity in the museum.”
This gallery will have an area where visitors are asked a question.
“The question could change and they could leave their comments here. It could be something as simple as ‘when was the first time you remember encountering music?’” Collinsworth said. “Or ‘what was the first concert you ever went to or what was the first musical instrument you remember hearing?’
“We’ll collect those comments and visitor contributions,” he said, “for use later, primarily in the hallways.”
Visitors will move east to the next gallery in Neighborhood 1 and look at, again, how people encounter and enjoy music. The first zone in this gallery space is called “The Home.”
“A lot of this will be looking at the 19th century home, so it will be more historical,” Collinsworth said. “It will be looking at music in the home setting and then we’re going to look at ‘Instruments and Spirituality,’ knowing that most, or for a lot of people, some of their earliest experiences with music or musical instruments will be in a religious setting or a ceremonial setting.
“This is where you’ll see that; this is where our great old church organs are. We’ll also be looking at other spiritual traditions,” he said.
This gallery likely will include videos embedded into what’s called a reader rail that contains most of the exhibition’s labeling and information.
“We expect to have some screens and some story telling on there, as well,” Collinsworth said.
A third gallery, he said, will explore international issues and how instruments have traveled back and forth from Europe to America and vice versa.
“The first thing people will encounter there are instruments from symphony orchestras,” he said. “What the purpose was, how they were played, etc., then there’s going to be our second interactive portion of the exhibition.”
This will explore music pitch and how it was different across different places in the world at different times and how that dictated how instruments were and how if you had an instrument in Munich, you probably couldn’t play in an orchestra in Chicago,” Collinsworth said. “That will be in an area outside the old elevator where we really have an area for caseworks, so we want to do something interesting and interactive. Some push buttons, some lights, some good information.”
Another zone in the neighborhood will be known as the “International Marketplace” and will give visitors an idea of the global exchange of design and ideas of music and musical instruments and will give visitors an idea of music’s importance at such places as world fairs and exhibitions.
This area will demonstrate “how the music industry took root, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, he said.
The last portion of that gallery will be about how musical instruments exist in the arena of power.
“We’ll be looking at instruments that have been impacted by political conflict, military instruments and themes of cultural borrowing and appropriation,” Collinsworth said.
The museum’s gamelan will be in the museum’s old performance hall. “We’re going to build some more information and experiences around that, including a puppet show, some videos and some other artifacts,” he said. “We’re leaving enough space where our local gamelan ensemble can still play. They can come in here for practice and performance.”
From the gamelan, visitors will move into “an area of concentration” that will focus on 20th century American stringed instruments.
“This will have a jukebox interactive, it will have some video that runs in conjunction with the jukebox that runs in conjunction with the jukebox along the top of the gallery and then a very nice display of guitars, mandolins and maybe some banjos,” Collinsworth said. “We have probably the world’s finest collection of early 20th century American strings and this is where a lot of those will be.”
What used to be the museum’s library is being transformed into the facility’s guitar and violin workshop.
“Tools, some of the instruments that were made, some photos and here we’re really talking about instrument making as a family, communal activity,” he said. “That’s the message that we’re going to get across.”
The museum’s former historic lobby will be used as a space to tell the story of the National Music Museum, its history, how it was founded and how the collection grew at the University of South Dakota and in Vermillion.
“We’ll also talk a little bit about conservation issues and collecting, keeping and repairing these objects with some museum-centric information along with some comfortable seating,” Collinsworth said.
He added, after describing just one of the three “neighborhoods” that are being developed within the museum, that work is leading to “remarkably different layout than what we had before. Prior to this, most of our objects were arranged chronologically … and this is more narrative-based and we hope it will be a lot more engaging for visitors.
“We’ll still have some of those areas of concentration where people can do a deep dive, but we’re really trying to think of all our visitors as we try to develop this,” Collinsworth said.