If music is art, are too the instruments?
The MFA’s extensive collection of musical instruments offers surprises for the curious eye
Musical instruments collection
Museum of Fine Arts
Free with MIT ID
You may think of a painting as a work of art, but do you ever think of a paintbrush as one? What about music — you may think of musical pieces as works of art, but how do you view musical instruments? Are they just tools, or can they be works of art themselves?
The MFA has an oft-overlooked, Aladdin’s cave of an exhibition room dedicated to displaying a small cross-section of its impressive collection of musical instruments. The collection is diverse, with over 1,100 instruments of all different kinds, dating from ancient times to the last century, and sourced from all over the world.
Hung from the walls, displayed in cases, or placed on raised platforms are instruments you have never heard or dreamed of. There are curiosities such as an ndongo, a fantastic eight-stringed lyre of the Ganda people (in modern Uganda), made with snakeskin stretched over a wooden bowl and decorated with monkey hair and cowrie shells, and a rkang-gling, a 19th century Tibetan trumpet made of human thigh bone and decorated with turquoise and coral stones.
There are also many earlier versions of familiar instruments, and it is possible to trace the evolution of these: From a cased clavichord to a standing French harpsichord, with two tiers of keys and a classical landscape painted in detail on the inner surface of its lid, to a beautiful pianoforte from 1796 — made for the Queen of Spain — designed by the furniture-maker Thomas Sheraton, and decorated with cameos by Wedgwood. The pianoforte even has three pedals, the first and second being “soft” and “sustain” pedals, and the middle one being a bass drum beater (I kid you not), which was apparently incorporated due to an interest in Turkish music and culture at the time.
As well as seeing the predecessors of modern-day instruments, it is also fascinating to see some innovative instruments that fell out of use or never quite caught on. For example, the musical glasses (or grand harmonicon) made in 1830 in Baltimore, is a rectangular mahogany fold-up case played by running wet fingers along the rims of the twenty-four stemmed glasses contained within (a mechanized version, in which the glasses rotated, was later made).
Naturally, if you see these instruments, you will want to know what they sound like, and fortunately the museum offers audio guides with recordings of many of the instruments on display. These audio clips are available online along with photos and information about each piece in the collection.
If you’re looking for something more engaging still, the museum hosts talks and demonstrations about items in the collection. There is a regular “Highlights of the Musical Instrument Collection” lecture by MFA curator Darcy Kuronen, in which he introduces and plays a selection of the instruments. I highly recommend it, as Kuronen is witty and enthusiastic and tells plenty of interesting anecdotes. There are also musicians who come in to discuss and perform on specific instruments. Upcoming sessions include “The Northumbrian Bagpipes,” “The Modern Mandolin,” “The Hardanger Fiddle of Norway,” “The Middle Eastern ’Ud,” and “The Pipa: Lute of China.” For more information, check out the MFA’s website.
Whether you browse it online, visit and pick up an audio guide, or attend a talk, you’re bound to find something intriguing and unexpected in this collection. This humble room packs a punch — history lesson, concert, and art exhibit all in one!