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What Is the Museum of Instruments?

A variety of stringed instruments are on display at the Museum of Instruments.
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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 08 April 2014
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The Museum of Instruments is a small gallery museum that is operated by the Royal College of Music in London, United Kingdom. It was designed to house the college’s large collection of instruments and is one of a number of permanent exhibitions and collections at the college. This collection is located within the Royal College of Music’s main campus on Prince Consort Road in the Kensington area of the city.

Between 500 and 1,000 students study at the Royal College of Music each year. The college was founded in 1882 and moved to its current location in 1894. It was founded in order to help develop Britain’s musicians and composers. Since its inception, either the reigning monarch or the Prince/Princess of Wales has patronized the college.

Over its development, the Royal College of Music accrued a large number of instruments. This came to a head in 1970, when a new and permanent site for the collection was found within the college. This later became the Museum of Instruments. Since then the collection has continued to grow in size and now accounts for around 1,000 instruments. These include wind and stringed instruments, as well as a wide range of keyboards, including the world’s oldest.

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Naturally, such a large collection as the Museum of Instruments includes instruments owned and used by famous musicians and composers. Edward Elgar, a composer most famous for using violins and cellos, as well as for composing Pomp and Circumstance Marches donated a trombone of his; Gustav Holst also donated a trombone. Other famous musicians and composers include Geoffrey Hartley, A.J. Hipkins, Sir Sorindro Mohun Tagore and Amaryllis Fleming.

The Museum of Instruments also contains a number of oddities. These are instruments that have become increasingly rare or were in use for only a short time before being replaced. Examples of these include the division viol and various armonicas — armonica is another term for harmonica.

One example of the rare instrument is the contrabassophone. Invented in 1847 by Heinrich Joseph Hasseneier, the contrabassophone was designed to be a replacement for the contrabassoon. It proved to be popular in the mid-to-late 19th century, but was later replaced by an improved version of the contrabassoon.

The museum’s finances are closely linked to those of the Royal College of Music. In fact, the museum of instruments largely relies on donations and trusts. This has allowed it to follow a similar trend in the early 2000s in London of being a museum open to the public with no admission charge. It might, however, charge for groups and it usually asks researchers to book appointments in advance. The museum, since its inception, is opened four afternoons a week and is closed during the Christmas and Easter holidays.

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