February 05, 2016
Like that iconic scene at the end of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark of the Covenant is revealed to be in a warehouse filled with crates containing all sorts of treasures, many real life artifacts often find themselves carted away into dark corners of museums, rarely to be seen by the public.
But with Studio Bell nearing completion, the National Music Centre (NMC) has an opportunity to show how different a museum can be.
Home to a collection of over 2,000 instruments and artifacts compiled over nearly two decades, NMC is the owner one of the most impressive music collections in the world. Visitors to Studio Bell could find themselves discovering one of the rarest and earliest electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot, so rare it took NMC staff over 10 years to find one for its collection, or Randy Bachman’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul “American Woman” guitar, used to write and record hits, such as “American Woman,” “No Time,” “Undun,” and “Laughing.”
The person responsible for the stewardship of this collection is NMC’s Director of Collections, Jesse Moffatt. He has the task of not only finding, restoring, and caring for these instruments, but also deciding the best way to safely and most effectively exhibit it to the public—and for this, Moffatt has big plans.
“NMC’s unique approach to a ‘living collection’ of musical instruments aims to carefully balance the preservation of collection artifacts with opportunities for responsible artifact access,” says Moffatt. “The goal is to provide the audience with the fullest experience of music possible.”
For visitors to Studio Bell, this will mean having access to approximately 15 percent of NMC’s collection—whereas most institutions have between two and three percent of their collections accessible to the public.
This stays true to NMC’s philosophy of providing access to its “living collection,” and the idea that historic instruments should be seen, heard, and sometimes touched. And through NMC’s Artist in Residence program, many instruments are even used in the creation of new music, adding to the legacy of historic items.
NMC’s collection, however, does not only consist of instruments. NMC has also acquired objects and artifacts from organizations across Canada; one of the most impressive being the approximately 1,300 pieces from the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame Collection.
With so many items set to be put on display and available by the public, a significant consideration for NMC is how to best tell the story of music in Canada while at the same time showing the amazing characteristics of their collection, both at Studio Bell and through outreach initiatives.
As the Director of Programs at NMC, Adam Fox has been playing an important part in figuring out what this might look like.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how our exhibitions resonate with our visitors,” says Fox. “You can only design and test so much, and I know we’ll learn a lot about our assumptions in the early days.”
Fox—in collaboration with other members of NMC’s staff—is tasked with coordinating the various assets in NMC’s collections and showing it off to its fullest potential in its new home at Studio Bell.
A case in point is TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), one of the most impressive pieces in NMC’s collection, which was acquired in late 2013. TONTO presents a conundrum for people like Moffatt and Fox when considering how it should be used.
The first difficulty arises from TONTO being the only instrument of its kind in the world. Nothing quite like it was ever made by anyone else, making it a truly one-of-a-kind instrument. The second difficulty runs contrary to the first in that it is a fully functioning, playable instrument—something that fits right into NMC’s philosophy of offering a “living collection.”
In fact, a big part of why NMC was able to acquire TONTO in the first place was the promise to its creators—famed producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff—that the instrument would be used. For Fox, this presents a great opportunity for programming, but for Moffatt it raises concerns over the care of an irreplaceable instrument.
In creating programming for its collection, NMC runs into problems like this all the time, but it’s part of what makes the whole process exciting for people like Moffatt and Fox.
“We wanted these exhibits to be accessible,” says Fox. “You shouldn’t have to be a Canadian music insider or musicologist to get something out of the experience.”
Moffatt echoes this sentiment, saying, “What will truly set us apart from any other collecting organization in the world is how we will provide visitors and artists access to our musical instrument collection…by giving the audience an opportunity to experience our artifacts as they were originally intended to be heard.”
So how will instruments like TONTO and other parts of NMC’s vast collection fit into the final version of Studio Bell? For the answer to that, you will have to wait for opening day. But with people like Moffatt and Fox working tirelessly on the project, it’s sure to be worth the wait.
About the Author
Born and raised in the Comox Valley, Nathaniel is a composer, teacher, writer, and reluctant pianist who has been freelancing in Calgary in various capacities for over seven years. He freely admits to enjoying everything Sting has done pre-1998 (including Dune).