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MMD > Archives > May 2008 > 2008.05.04 > 01Prev  Next

Preserving Historical Documents and Artifacts
By Matthew Caulfield

As time marches on, information about mechanical music and examples
of the musical machines and media forming its core all become harder
to locate.  We are approaching the point in time where dealing with
mechanical music is about like trying to deal with Roman history and

How best to preserve surviving instruments presents a real dilemma.
Wealthy collectors can amass and maintain large collections in
centralized locations, and if they are gracious enough to open their
collections to public viewing, everyone benefits.  But unless careful
provisions are made for the collection after the owner's demise, its
fate becomes uncertain, likely being sold off piecemeal or being
transferred to a public institution.

To succeed, such a transfer has to be accompanied by an endowment
for its maintenance.  A good example of that is the Murtogh Guinness
Collection; the Morris Museum received several million dollars with
the collection.  The Bovey Collection, on the other hand, suffers
from the State of Montana's lack of funds for its maintenance.

Chapter 10 of Art Reblitz's "The Golden Age Of Automatic Musical
Instruments" describes the creation and the demise -- and occasional
resurrection -- of the great and famous early collections.  Of course
the whole book focuses on three of today's great collections, the
Gilson, the Sanfilippo, and the Krughoff collections.  But what will
become of them in tomorrow's world?

As an amateur researcher and ex-librarian, I am particularly interested
in the fate of historical papers and documents.  If it weren't for Dave
Bowers' early interest in the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, an incredible
amount of company history would have been lost, because whoever was
responsible for deciding what should be saved and what should be trashed
in the company's final days showed poor judgment.  A home for what little
was saved then had to be found.  DeKalb, Illinois, must have seemed
appropriate, given its central location, the presence of a university
library there, and the town's significance as the location of
Wurlitzer's Piano Division since 1919.  But without dedicated funding
for the housing and administration of the papers, they were soon
unloaded onto the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Houston collector Richard J. Howe had a deep interest in finding and
preserving mechanical music literature.  He ran standing classified
ads in both the AMICA and MBSI magazines, offering to buy original
literature.  Over time he amassed an impressive collection of
documents.  When events in his personal life reminded Dick of his
mortality, he set about finding an institutional home for his papers.
He ruled out the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, feeling with
good reason that his collection would be lost in such huge and
non-specialized institutions.

He finally settled on IPAM (International Piano Archives at Maryland),
a part of the University of Maryland's College Park Libraries.  The
Richard J. Howe Archives are there today, with web pages dedicated to
them; they are not lost in the bowels of a library giant.  But neither
are they easily accessible.  Preserved, but not readily usable by you
and me.

 [ The IPAM home page is
 [ -- Robbie

Will collections like the Howe Archives at IPAM or the Wurlitzer
Archives at the Smithsonian act as magnets to draw in related
collections?  When Dave Bowers decided to dispose of his set of the
"Music Trade Review," he donated it to the MBSI, and it has since been
scanned to PDF file.  I don't know what has happened to the extensive
listings of music rolls and other piano data that the late Ed Sprankle
collected.  But it doesn't appear that the magnet effect is very strong
in the mechanical music field.

Matthew Caulfield
Irondequoit, New York

(Message sent Sun 4 May 2008, 21:16:48 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Artifacts, Documents, Historical, Preserving

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