Look, listen, smell, but don’t touch (unless we say so)

When we talk about the unique collection here at NMC, we often use the term “living collection.” This refers to the fact that some of the musical artifacts in the collection are still in functioning condition and continue to be used. Not all of the instruments can be played, however. Approximately 300 of the 700 musical instruments in our existing collection are classified as “living”, which in turn is about 15% of the total collection materials at NMC. In this blog post, we get into the specifics involved in operating and caring for our living collection. If you missed the previous two installments of our new “In the collection” blog spot, please check them out at the links below!




What is a living collection?

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “living collection”? An assortment of live organisms, such as plants and animals? A bunch of functioning objects that allow for visitor interaction? Maybe the image of mummies rising from their hermetically sealed museum cases just flashed before your eyes.

I hate to ruin any zombie fantasies, but only two of these options are correct. Traditionally, living collections have been classified as containing live botanical and zoological specimens, such as in a zoo, aquarium, or botanical garden. The parameters of the term “living collection” however, are often expanded nowadays to include highly interactive heritage institutions, such as natural history or children’s museums. These particular collections contain artifacts that require similar maintenance, upkeep, and care as live specimens to keep them in functioning condition.

Unlike zoos and aquariums, which struggle with the negative connotations of holding live “specimens” in trust for the public, living artifact collections such as those held at NMC contain inanimate objects that produce something akin to life. While these artifacts do not live and breathe our air, they can be used as tools to alter and connect with our environment. This interactive nature of a living collection can have a direct affect how we experience and remember history and culture.


Artist in Residence Jesse Plessis plays NMC’s 19th century Broadwood Art Case Grand Piano. Credit: National Music Centre


How are Musical Instruments “living”?

If you have ever walked into an old cathedral and experienced the smell of a thousand slow-burning candles embedded in the walls over time, or heard the sounds of a choir bouncing directly into your ear from the vaulted ceiling, you know that seeing photos of such a space does not compare to the sensation of being physically immersed in it. Much is the same when it comes to NMC’s living collections. Though often exquisitely crafted and beautiful to look at, the aesthetic and historical qualities of musical instruments and sound equipment extend far beyond sight alone.

It goes without saying that the primary aesthetic quality of an instrument is the sound that it produces. This capability can turn what appears to be a lifeless object into a vessel for music, creation and life. Aside from sound, the smell and touch of an instrument can also offer historical information and aesthetic pleasure to the user. The musky scent of an instrument made of wood, or the physical interaction of turning a plastic dial on a synthesizer, both function to elevate a user’s experience of the instrument. This sort of multi-sensory experience that emerges when music is played on an instrument creates an immersive environment that has the ability to alter moods, stir emotions and connect strangers.

Much like the blooming flower gardens and energetic wildlife found in typical “living collections”, musical instruments cannot truly be appreciated unless they are experienced in their natural context, making sounds and music. It is only fair then, that the instrument collection at NMC is classified in the realm of “living artifacts”.

FlamingLipsBuchla100_840pixMembers of the band the Flaming Lips admire NMC’s Buchla 100. Credit: National Music Centre


What is Collection Management’s role in caring for a living collection?

The “living” portion of the collection at NMC straddles the line between museum artifacts and living specimens. This specific distinction allows NMC to classify itself as a museum, educational institute, and a creation, performance, and recording venue that offers dynamic exhibitions and programming opportunities year round. For the collections team in particular, this means that every effort must be taken to ensure the sustained functional life of the instruments and equipment in the collection, while balancing museum standards for protection and preservation.

Traditionally, caring for a museum collection involves actions such as environmental monitoring (i.e. maintaining temperature, humidity and light levels), regular cleaning and conservation treatments, and setting physical barriers to keep people from touching the artifacts. While all these actions are still employed at NMC, the collection staff also has a number of additional responsibilities in order to provide the public with the unique opportunity to access a musical instrument collection on a multi-sensory level.

Building a living collection begins with the purposeful acquisition of musical instruments that function and can be used. In NMC’s collection, certain artifacts exist solely to be used as playable instruments for visitors and artists to experience.

Playing frequency, playing duration, who, and how an instrument is played are all determined by the collections department. All “living” instruments go through a strict and unbiased assessment to determine whether they are fit to be played, by artists in residence or interpretive guides for example. Collections staff must also record the amount of time each instrument has been used, whether for a demonstration, performance, or regular maintenance, and complete a condition report for that instrument before and after each use.

The collections department also plays a large role in educating and inspiring musicians on the potential of our unique collection of living musical instruments. Whether interpretive guides, or artists in residence, even the most experienced musicians have likely never encountered a 16th century harpsichord. Our musical instrument technicians work with NMC interpreters and incoming artists in the proper use and playing techniques of NMC’s rare instrument collection. The expertise and creative support given by NMC’s technicians allows for artists in residence to fully realize the potential of our living collections to elevate their one of a kind experience.

Artist in Residence Clara Venice speaks about her time spent with NMC’s living collection. 


What’s the purpose of sustaining a living collection at NMC?

The protocols put in place to care for the living collection at NMC are intended to allow for a fair balance of preservation and access to the musical artifacts. It is of the utmost importance that the instruments are able to continually produce the historically accurate sounds that made them significant in the first place.

More than just the physical accessibility, the intellectual, social, and historical information contained within an instrument cannot be retrieved unless played. For instance, it is one thing to be told that the Hohner Clavinet keyboard was responsible for the new funk sound in 1970’s music, it’s quite another thing to hear an NMC interpreter bust out the first few chords of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and realize “oh, THAT’s where that distinctive sound comes from!”

These sorts of ear-opening moments enable visitors to make strong connections to music history as a result of their experience. NMC’s living collection acts as an alternative to a silent temple for musical instruments, offering a multi-sensory adventure to ensure visitors are memorably engaged by the artifacts and exhibits. Continued sustainability of our living collection is imperative to making sure the NMC collection remains accessible to the people for whom we collect it.


– Hayley Robb

Questions or Comments?  Email me at hayley.robb@nmc.ca.

Want to hear more about the collections at NMC? Be sure to check out past blog entries featured in Amplify, the National Music Centre’s online magazine.

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