Metropolitan Museum of Art: reopening of musical instrument galleries

The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened on March 22, 2018 after a two-year renovation. Redesigned and vastly improved, it features instruments from the Met’s collection spanning four millennia of musical creation, from ancient Egypt to 21st century football stadiums.

This permanent exhibition includes instruments representative of many cultures and eras as well as instruments of particular historical significance. At the entrance to the collection is an exhibition of 93 brass instruments, called “Fanfare”, with shofars, trombones, hunting horns and even a vuvuzela, all centered on a conch, the original brass blower. (“Brass” refers to producing sound by blowing with pursed lips, rather than the material.)

Inside the main exhibition hall, you’re greeted by artefacts such as a pair of 4,000-year-old Egyptian clappers and an ancient sistrum bearing the name of Ptolemy I, the Macedonian Greek general who ruled the Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. ECB


Sistra bearing the name of Ptolemy I. Cymbals would have been suspended from a rod from above.

Fascinating artifacts associated with major artists and historical figures include a narwhal tusk flute made for Frederick the Great, a 16th century Amati violin made for the wedding of Philip II, guitars belonging to Segovia and a clarinet that once belonged to Benny Goodman. .

There are instruments made of all kinds of materials, from ceramic to plastic. Many animals have also given their lives for humans’ love of music. Witness this politically incorrect Martin guitar from the 1930s with an ivory fingerboard.

Martin guitar

A large-scale treasure long buried in museum storerooms, this 19th-century gong is carried by a pair of oniJapanese trolls sneakily trying to convince us that they’ve corrected their bad ways.

19th century gong with oni, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This installation is placed next to a harpsichord decorated in a wonderful Asian style, denoting the West’s obsession in the 19th century with Eastern cultures.

But the main dish among the keyboards is the oldest known piano, made by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1720.

Piano Cristofoli, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1720 Cristofori piano, oldest known surviving piano

There are two Stradivarius violins, one in the original style, the other updated with a longer fingerboard, their cases positioned so that the two can be compared from all sides.

Perhaps the most spectacular piece in terms of visual piquancy is a double virginal from the year 1600, which once belonged to the Viceroy of Peru. What could have convinced him (or his family) to part with it? Hard to imagine. But here it is.

Metropolitan Museum of Art of the Virgin Philip II

The new treasure of the collection is an electric pipa. (Of course, there is also a traditional example of this Chinese stringed instrument.) Among the electronic instruments, you will find an original theremin. Also a square Steinberger electric guitar, included for his design. I remember when they came out. Is this aging me?

The permanent nature of the exhibition is particularly gratifying. Most of the objects are from the Met’s own collection, although a handful, such as the 1714 Batta-Piatigorsky cello made by Antonio Stradivari and glass flutes made for Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon, are on loan elsewhere.

On your next visit to the Met, be sure to visit the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments. After the main gallery you will also find the Organ Loft with a recently preserved 1830 Thomas Appleton organ. And get the audio guide, both for the obvious enthusiasm of the curators and for the additional information.

All photos by Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

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