Musical instruments have been part of The Met collection for almost 130 years—and thanks to the recent reopening of the André Mertens Galleries, they have never looked better. Showcasing instruments from around the world, the new arrangement beautifully argues two important points: the universality of music, and the notion that instruments don’t just produce art, but are works of art in themselves.
The collection dates to 1889, when collector Lucy W. Drexel gave several hundred instruments to the then-young Museum. Buttressed by extensive donations from Mrs. John Crosby Brown, the collection by 1918 numbered some 4,000 objects, curated in dense displays that illustrated the range and ingenuity of the craftsmen who created these instruments. Originally administered by the Department of Decorative Arts, the collection came under the purview of an autonomous Department of Musical Instruments in 1948.
The freshly reinstalled and reinterpreted presentation begins with the joyous Fanfare (pictured at top of post), a cross-cultural array of brass instruments that seem to float in an oversized case. The natural light that pours in allows visitors to examine the intricate constructions by such innovators as Adolphe Sax alongside less expected—if no less exuberant—objects, including the magnificent conch shell at the center of the display, and a contemporary vuvuzela. Such juxtapositions highlight how music making has been a part of human civilization across the world for millennia.
The new galleries break away from the department’s prior classification model of instruments from Western Europe, and those from everywhere else. Instead, instruments appear in chronological order, from 3,000 B.C. through today, allowing visitors to explore the sometimes surprising commonalities in instrument designs and contexts across cultures. From Inca wind instruments to Indian musical instruments to Renaissance and Baroque instruments, a vast range of styles is on view.
The open design of the gallery allows visitors to take in the scope of the collection, while subtle but vital improvements to mounts and gallery lighting help make the case for these objects as superbly wrought artworks in their own right. For those who crave to hear the sounds the instruments produce when they’re not in display cases can hear them being played via an interactive audio guide (which is also available online for digital viewer-listeners.)
These new galleries make a successful case for “The Art of Music,” and prove how musical instruments form a vital chapter in The Met’s narrative of 5,000 years of art from every corner of the world.