In the Stearns Collection, forgotten musical artifacts find a home

Said Alsalah/Daily
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By Leah Burgin, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 14, 2009

A maze of beautifully handcrafted gongs, varying in shape and size, stretches out across the room. The metallic bars of several xylophone-like instruments glint dimly in the harsh fluorescent lighting. Decorative curly-cues of golden dragon tails morph into snarling snouts that guard the massive instruments upon which they perch.

Design by Maureen Stych
Said Alsalah/Daily
Said Alsalah/Daily
Said Alsalah/Daily
Said Alsalah/Daily

The first question: “What is this thing?”

The second: “Can I touch it?”

This monstrous and unique instrument, a Javanese gamelan, is the jewel of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments. Traditionally used to accompany Javanese shadow-puppet shows, this obscure instrument is rarely found outside of East Asia. Even though this magnificent treasure is housed right here on campus, many students don’t know of its existence.

Too bad the Stearns Collection is similarly obscure. If more students knew about it, more would take the opportunity to touch — and even play — the gamelan.

It’s not surprising that the Stearns Collection is overlooked — less than 5 percent of its approixmately 2,500 musical instruments are permanently displayed, and of this small percentage, the majority of the displays are tucked away in a widely unpopulated wing of the School of Music on North Campus.

This wasn’t always the case, though. Between 1914 and 1974, the entire collection enjoyed constant exposure and publicity. Housed in the upper lobby of Hill Auditorium (where some remnants of the old exhibit still remain), the collection used to be widely admired. Indeed, according to the collection’s website, “many long-time Ann Arborites still remember how the displays looked” from this time period.

So why the devolution? Why should students care about some moldy old instruments that have fallen into obscurity? What makes the Stearns Collection so special?

Originally donated to the University in 1899 by Frederick M. Stearns, a wealthy businessman and pack rat from Detroit, the collection is unique in that Stearns collected everything. Similar to his acquisitions of parasols, mummies, conch shells and mollusks, no instrument was beyond Stearns’s interest.

Since then, the collection has grown from Stearns’s donation of 940 instruments into a behemoth containing around 2,500. Because of the efforts of several individuals the collection has earned world-wide notoriety among selected circles. Past director Robert A. Warner promoted the collection in the 1950s when an interest in authentic performances with historically accurate instruments arose. Professors William Malm and Judith Becker traveled to Asia in the ’60s and ’70s and brought back many eastern instruments, including one of the earliest complete and playable Javanese gamelans.

Just by browsing the collection’s online catalogue on Google Books or actually visiting the displays, one can understand the collection's scope. In addition to the Javanese gamelan, Stearns also includes the first mass-produced Moog synthesizer, the RCA theremin used for the radio program “The Green Hornet,” a collection of trumpets donated by Armando Ghitalla (a former trumpeter of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), numerous rattles, reed instruments, drums and horns from different cultures around the world and a fantastic collection of forged instruments.

It’s this wide range of instruments that, according to Dr. Steven Ball, assistant professor of music and current director of the exhibit, renders the collection unique.

“Stearns is the only collection (of instruments) that has truly anthropological origins,” Ball said. “Each instrument in the collection is a product of its maker and of its time and of its place.”

Because the collection includes so many diverse instruments, study of the collection extends into the realm of human culture.

A prime example of this anthropological insight lies with the forged instruments of the collection. Some of the keyboards originally donated by Stearns were purchased from notorious Italian forger Leopoldo Franciolini, whose business boomed during the late 19th and early 20th century. In one particularly incredible forgery, Franciolini added two tiers of keyboards to a basic harpsichord and then scrawled the signature of Barolomeo Cristofori, a well-known harpsichord maker from the 1700s and inventor of the modern piano forte, on to the instrument.

In most cases, an historical object subjected to this level of tampering would be viewed as a travesty. But for Ball, who intends to create an exhibit titled “Fantastic Forgeries,” it’s a blessing in disguise.

“When you boil the forgeries down, usually at the core there are many important pieces. Forgeries aren’t just disposable, in fact they’re sort of like sleeping beauties,” Ball said. “We can learn about the original instruments at the base of the forgery and in this case, also learn about the culture of 19th-century museum world. And then there’s the whole aspect of Franciolini himself. The instrument tells you about the forger and the buyer.”

“There are always new things to discover about the instruments, and they start to tell very long, complex stories,” he added.

Unfortunately, one of the stories the Stearns instruments tell is a sad one — while the collection was growing during its golden years, the instruments were also tarnishing due to a lack of adequate preservation techniques. A combination of what Ball calls “a chronic lack of funding” and a lack of interest caused the collection to nose dive into its current condition, with the collection split and the management changing hands.

Appointed on June 1, 2009 as the collection’s new director, Ball has many ideas to counterbalance the collection’s distressing situation. His goals focus on stabilizing and expanding the collection in addition to getting the community, especially students, more motivated and involved. Tentative plans are being proposed to the University regarding a unified, larger space in which the collection could be permanently housed. Ball hopes to acquire such a space within the next five years.

Students should also expect to see a new website for the collection that may contain one of Ball’s other initiatives — an online catalogue of the Stearns instruments directed specifically toward student use.

Ball also extends a campus-wide call for any antique or unique instruments that may be “looking for a home.” In the spirit of the collection’s founder, Ball is extremely interested in expanding the collection and will take a look at any instrument. He asserts that this is a new direction, as the directors of the past three decades have not shown much interest in increasing the collection’s size.

The most promising plans for the future will hopefully be realized in extending the collection’s current outreach programs in the form of lectures, performances and tours. Ball believes that “when you stand in front of an instrument, you should have the ability to experience it.” Instruments cannot be fully appreciated when they are immobile and behind glass.

Carol Stepanchuk, docent of the Stearns Collection and head tour guide, couldn’t agree more. While working with the collection for the past four years, Stepanchuk has taken many individuals on tours and attests to the power a tactile connection with the instrument can have.

“Sometimes students find it very therapeutic to play the instruments, especially the gamelan," she said. "There’s just something about that instrument that can take stress away.”

Stepanchuk seems hopeful that under Ball, the collection will flourish. She is up for the implementation of his new ideas and even has a few suggestions of her own.

“In the past, Stearns has had an ‘adopt an instrument’ program where individuals can become the guardians of an instrument in poor condition – they restore the instrument and keep it in good condition until the collection wants to house it again,” she said.

“There is also the idea of memorializing an instrument in the name of a relative. For example, let’s say you had an uncle who really loved clarinets. You could pick a clarinet from the collection, donate a certain sum and have that instrument be named in memory of your uncle.”

However, Stepanchuk firmly believes that the best way to help the collection get through (and even grow in) these economic times is to partner with other arts programs and museums. She hopes to see more collaborations with other University departments, like the Kelsey Museum, the University Musical Society and the Exhibit Museum in the future.

“In the past, we’ve housed special exhibits in other museums," she said. "For example, a couple of years ago there was a fantastic exhibit at the Kelsey that explored the idea of reconstructing ancient instruments and trying to replicate the sounds and music the instruments made. Frederick Stearns also donated large parts of his collection to other institutions, like the mollusk collection in the Exhibit Museum and the mummy collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. We hope to consider collaborating with other recipients of Stearns’s massive collection.”

All these ideas are subject to change, however, and largely depend on funding and public interest.

Both Ball and Stepanchuk stress the importance of students getting involved with the collection, whether in working as part of its administration, taking a tour or simply looking at the website. Ball and Stepanchuk are eager to get in contact with anyone with ideas for an exhibit, instruments to donate or just an interest in becoming actively involved with the collection.

Most importantly, everyone involved with Stearns wishes to impress upon the public just how unique the collection is and why it is worth preserving. Ball emphasizes how important it is to study these instruments, interact with them and preserve them for future generations. He stresses that every object is a concrete piece of history worth preserving.

“That’s why museums are critically important: The information that the instruments contain is stable so long as the instruments exist — it’s its own record of itself,” Ball said. “And because of thermodynamics, the second law — entropy — all things go to hell basically over time, everything is deteriorating. Museums are a really critical part of the networks that house information because they are advocates for preservation.”