Musical Instrument Stewardship
Last month the Southern Appalachian Archives of Mars Hill University’s Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies acquired Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley’s fiddle, “Old Calico.” Below Master Fiddler Roger Howell and members of Hensley’s family pose with “Old Calico.”Along with previously accessioned Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “dehorned fiddle,” the instrument raised an important ethical question for collections stewardship. Should the fiddles be repaired by an experienced luthier so that they can be played briefly as a special feature for the festival that MHU hosts every year in October?
As a species of museum object, musical instruments can provide the curator and conservator with some dilemmas. Musical instruments are designed to be functional objects. They have moving parts or they require physical interaction to fulfil the purpose for which they were made. They have this in common with many other objects including clocks, transport vehicles, arms and armour, hand tools, domestic utensils, scientific apparatus and industrial machinery…The primary function of an instrument is usually to produce sound. If we are not permitted to hear the music it makes, our experience of an instrument is limited and its role as a historical document can only be partially fulfilled.
Lengthier treatment of the issues surrounding playing musical instruments in cultural heritage collections is available in a manual ICOM produced on the subject.
If playing accessioned musical instruments, at least occasionally, is important to your institution, it is a good idea to outline that use in your institution’s collections policy. For one example of an instrument playing policy click here. The highlights of this policy include:
- collection instruments are not available for rehearsals.
- playing time limits are strict.
- appointments are required.
- player cannot bring additional objects into musical instrument gallery.
Does your institution’s collection contain musical instruments? If so, is the original purpose–to create sound–maintained or exhibited? We hope to share future updates on Mars Hill’s decisions concerning the Hensley and Lunsford instruments.