The Treasures of Yale: Collection of Musical Instruments

piano

There are treasures of Yale, and then there are treasures of Yale. The former include those hallmarks of the university that whirlwind tours trumpet – visions of Old Campus and Beinecke’s glowing marble come to mind. But the treasures have the added value of another flight of stairs, an extra block’s walk, or the simple initiative taken to stop and find them. My goal here is to provide you with dispatches from these far reaches of our Elm City campus. With my résumé featuring discoveries of the Divinity School Library, the fountain of youth and TD, I think I’m up to the challenge.

To begin, I’ll delve into one of my favorite haunts on Hillhouse. Having written a profile of Susan Thompson, a curator of the Collection of Musical Instruments, for a class last semester, I’ve become very familiar with the most unassuming member of Yale’s museum network. Here are a few tips you might find useful in planning your visit:

Visit the bell exhibit. Find it. Immediately. Or better yet, save it for last. Something about the bell’s universality across boundaries of geography and time makes experiencing this area of the museum particularly rewarding, even in comparison to the exhibits devoted to strings, woodwinds and keyboards. A French table bell featuring a statuette of Napoleon Bonaparte comingles with a witch doctor’s pellet bells from Africa and age-old rattles from Japan. Interestingly, the exhibit was put together by Tiffany Ng ’05 in the two summers after graduating from Yale College in preparation for a conference of carillonneurs on campus (Ng was a member of Yale’s Carillonneurs Guild). Housed in the South Gallery on the first floor, it’s an immediate right upon entrance into the building.

Experience the Collection zoologically. Maybe you came to the Collection out of a love of the world’s fauna. A little odd, but coincidentally fitting. Pay attention to the repeat appearances of animals in the Collection’s pieces. Elephant bells from Thailand, camel bells from North Africa, and positively enormous cowbells from Switzerland are featured in the South Gallery. Elsewhere, the mayuri (“peacock” in Sanskrit) is stunning in its use of the form of a peacock to create a string instrument that traditionally accompanied dancing women in South India. The Russian bassoon (which can be viewed on the Collection’s website) features a fearsome, reptilian head, and many paintings on the keyboards upstairs depict scenes from nature. The unifying theme has the potential to substantially enrich your experience.

Consider a concert. Throughout the year, various professional musical groups perform in the museum using historical instruments from the Collection. I have yet to experience this, but I’m sure it’s interesting for both the players and the audience. (For a schedule of this scholastic year’s performances, follow this link: http://www.yale.edu/musicalinstruments/concerts.htm.)

Visit sooner rather than later. Speaking with Ms. Thompson, she mentions the pilgrimage of Yale College seniors each spring semester for their first viewing of the Collection. The good news is that the Collection is widely agreed to be a must-see among Yale students – the bad news is that it seems to occupy a space on bucket lists somewhere around successfully completing that cheese truck challenge and getting intimate in the stacks. Get your priorities straight. Only about ten percent of the Collection is on display at any one time (objects are rotated out of storage), so even one lengthy sojourn into the Collection’s realm will only yield a superficial glance into the Collection in full. Visit early, and visit often. You’ll thank yourself later.

Don’t be reluctant to go at it alone. If you visit, chances are you’ll constitute at least a quarter of the Collection’s visitors at any one time. The Collection is already small and personal since it’s housed in a former fraternity building — unlike most museums, you could realistically cover all the displayed pieces in one day. The odd feeling of being alone among priceless historical pianos, harpsichords and clavichords, as if in a truly private collection, is worth experiencing.

The Collection is open from one to four Tuesdays through Fridays and from one to five on Sundays.

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