“How’d you get that?” is a question we’re often asked. There are many considerations behind our collecting practices. Our goal is to make music accessible to all Canadians—from those who visit Studio Bell to the many amazing artists who record in our studios. As such, NMC’s collections team spends much more time cataloguing, maintaining, conserving, restoring, and displaying artifacts then it does acquiring them. Jesse Moffatt, Director of Collections and Exhibitions for the National Music Centre (NMC), shares how relationships with donors and artists are the first step in building a good collection, the perpetual responsibility involved with being entrusted to steward a donation, and the sense of excitement and discovery that comes with collecting and meeting other like-minded music lovers.
One of the best things about leading the National Music Centre’s collections and exhibitions projects is cultivating long-lasting relationships with people who are just as passionate about objects as you are. These are people who care about ensuring these objects, and the history behind them, are preserved and made accessible for others to use and enjoy.
Collecting is what museums do: We are dedicated to the long-term care, preservation, and dissemination of objects through our exhibitions and programs. Once an object is added to the collection, as a permeant acquisition, donation, or temporary loan, we have a fundamental obligation to take care of that object in perpetuity and further contribute to the ongoing history of music in Canada. It’s a lengthy process, but something we love to do. The act of collecting makes myself and my team feel like champions of musical artifacts.
Some artifacts are like lost treasures just waiting to be found, acquired, or donated. Much like Indiana Jones, NMC has been hunting for a myriad of items that are important in the history of music technology through its vast network of experts since we began collecting over 20 years ago. We look at the historic and intrinsic value of these items on a grading system between 1 to 10, 10 being rare one-offs or artifacts that may never become available. TONTO (aka The Original New Timbral Orchestra) is a 10. Acquired from its late co-creator Malcom Cecil in 2013, TONTO’s acquisition is a good example of the importance of strong relationships. Well after receiving the synthesizer from Cecil, our team spent years gathering information from him in order to restore the instrument that he knew better than anyone. It was important to Cecil that his instrument was workable and used again by a new generation of musicians. We have been able to keep that promise, and it is now in use as part of our collection of “living” musical instruments made available through our Artist in Residence program.
What people outside of the collecting world don’t realize is that finding and acquiring an artifact is a small part of the collecting journey. In many cases, getting the item is sometimes the easiest thing. The hardest part comes once you have it with the backend work of cataloguing, preparing reports, research, actively monitoring environmental conditions, building display and storage mounts, curation, creating exhibits, and more.
Aside from internationally coveted finds, there’s also space for not-yet-known items that also have an interesting local story to tell. Take for example, the aXiØ (Alternative Expressive Input Øbject), a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) controller that was built by Brad Cariou as part of his thesis at University of Calgary in 1993. The aXiØ is played with both hands with the use of a joystick and is intended to give musicians a range of expression when performing live and create a closer relationship between the performer and instrument than a free-standing controller. It’s an unusual piece for its time that we were happy to add. It was brought to us by David Eagle, a Canadian musician and composer, who was familiar with the National Music Centre, knew our approach to having a “living collection,” and thought it would be great if other artists could potentially use it. He was right.
Similarly, another Frank Gay bass guitar was added to our growing collection through strong local connections. Gay is a local builder from Edmonton, known for making over-the-top acoustic guitars for famous Nashville musicians, and his story connects to the wider history of Canadian luthiers. He designed a guitar for Canadian Country Music Hall of Famer Joyce Smith, who is celebrated at Studio Bell and how we first encountered his work. We are always learning of new makers and innovators in Canada, which makes collections work endlessly thrilling.
And sometimes, you have the chance to reflect on your own history through collecting. Enter iconic record retailer Megatunes Inc. If you were a music-lover in Calgary in the late ‘80s to early 2000s, Megatunes was the record shop to find great albums and music memorabilia. Although well acquainted with the store, meeting co-owner Joni Pleau didn’t formally happen until 2017 when she called asking if NMC may be interested in a collection of posters and music memorabilia that her late husband Mike Pleau had collected before his passing in 2008. When visiting her home, it became very clear that Mike was much more than a shop owner who sold memorabilia, cassette tapes, CDs, etc., he was also a passionate and dedicated collector and music lover; someone that you might imagine could have spent hours talking about each item he meticulously collected and the history behind each of them. Fortunately, NMC was the chosen home for many of the pieces, allowing us to perpetuate the story of a small Alberta-based record shop and the collection Mike Pleau left behind.
It’s incredibly exciting to get a call or email about an artifact and then learn about the history of something you didn’t know about before, discover what another collector has amassed over the years, and see a part of yourself in that history. You really never know what you’re gonna find.
Learn more about the aforementioned items and over 300 other artifacts on the National Music Centre’s online collections database at collections.nmc.ca/collections.