Conservation and restoration of musical instruments

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A Violin in the process of being restored.

The conservation and restoration of musical instruments is an action done by conservator-restorers trained to preserve or protect historical and current musical instruments.

Musical instrument conservation, at least by the date of the earliest reference acquired, originates from 1862 when “a letter was written by Antonio Stradivari, who not only repaired his own instruments but also those of other makers, for Count Cesare Castelbarco about how to conserve his many Stradivari instruments.[1]” Conservation practices of musical instruments follow the same guidelines as the numerous other artifacts in museum collections. During conservation, it is important to document the pre-conservation state and then the progress after those conservation actions have been completed. In order to protect musical instruments for the future, it is best to keep the collection in the most climate-controlled area.

It is important to realize that even though many instruments have to be rebuilt after a certain period of time has passed, it is acceptable to play them if they are supervised by a musical instrument conservator. Musical instrument conservation is unique because the artifacts are played and they produce sound. These instruments were historically made over the centuries to entertain all kinds of people, from royalty to the average person.

Background[edit]

There are many similarities between musical instrument conservation and art work protection. Like a conservator working to restore the color saturation of the water lilies in a Claude Monet painting, conservators must keep in mind the instrument maker’s integrity when cleaning or restoring any type of musical instrument (for example, luthiers create guitars and violins for guitarists or violinists), as well as the standardized policies or ethics of art conservation. According to the Code of Ethics, “II. All actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.[2]” Both art conservation and musical instrument conservation require a lot of attention to detail, patience, and respect for the item or artist(s). The conservator should also be highly trained in the medium in which these items were created. For example, wood preservation or acrylic on canvas.

In general, art works are static and not moving whereas musical instruments are basically an active art tool for producing the sounds notated on sheet music in various keys or tempos. Although some art objects may have more than one use and move periodically from its home institution to another museum on loan (besides providing cultural satisfaction), instruments are subject to: travel or wear and tear consistently due to continual playing. Musical instruments create art by producing sound because the human hand touches their skins, strings, bows, fret board or keys. Musical instruments are generally used on a regular basis, during recitals and concerts by all levels of musicians.

An instrumentalist needs to keep in mind how to play their instrument carefully so that they can preserve the integrity of the instrument. That being stated, each musician performs with an instrument differently, creating their own personality and take on the capabilities of that particular instrument (ex. Louis Armstrong and his trumpet). In a sense, the partnership between instrumentalist and instrument defines them both. “Players demand certain kinds of physical responses from an instrument, and players and listeners alike have certain preferences about the tone produced.[3]

Despite how long musical instruments should last, it is important to try to maintain their playable conditions as long as possible. Similarly to automobiles that have been used on a daily basis over the years, musical instruments do not sound the same or work in the same manner that they once did when they were new. Parts wear out and at times just need to be replaced. On a side note, the average lifespan of instruments depends on the classification of them: “woodwinds or brass instruments last about twenty years, while pianos last about 100 years, and string instruments for a maximum of 200 years.[4]" With proper conservation techniques used on instruments, they will be able to last longer than their projected lifespans.

Some music composed during the 18th century by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was for the harpsichord, and if this music is to be historically understood it must be heard on an instrument of the original time period. The Smithsonian has maintained a harpsichord that some of the resident curators can periodically play. This can be seen via the short YouTube video entitled, “Play it Again.”[5] Although these Mozart compositions could be played on a piano, they would not sound the same as a harpsichord when a musician performs the piece.

Late 19th Century Rosewood Clarinet

Environmental obligations exist for both musical instrument creators and conservators. This is because the materials used in instrument creation, like wood, can be on the endangered species list. “Many species of rosewood and ebony are endangered, but the wood is still easily purchased.’ ‘Some timbers and materials used by luthiers has legal restrictions, especially when crossing international boundaries.[6]” There appears to be a mission to conserve both art or cultural artifacts and environmental conservation in the realm of musical instrument conservation.

General care of musical instruments[edit]

According to the Heritage Preservation’s Caring for Your Family Treasures: A Concise guide to caring for your cherished belongings by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long,[7] the following eight steps are something to remember when trying to preserve one’s instrument(s):

  • “Avoid placing high tension on stringed (including keyboard) instruments.[8]
  • “Avoid sudden increases or decreases in string tension.[9]
  • “Move pianos only on dollies and when you have enough people to do the job comfortably.[10]
  • Preserve the natural patina on brass instruments; don’t handle them with bare hands or polish them.[11]
  • “Keep instruments in rooms with relative humidity at about 50%.[12]
  • “If you play wooden-bore wind instruments, warm them up and play them in gradually.[13]
  • “Clear the moisture from wind instruments immediately after they are played.[14]
  • “Do not oil or polish the surfaces of a wooden instrument.[15]

Preventive conservation[edit]

Environmental considerations[edit]

In some museums, the climate controlled system in the galleries or entire architecture of the institution may need to be revamped or even replaced (depending on the age of the institution). A collections manager, or another employee from the collections department, should check to see what should be upgraded in the climate controlled system by walking around the museum and checking the status of the collection. It is their duty, along with the artifact conservators, to keep the collection safe. “Since there are over 8,000 different combinations of climate control design choices in the commercial marketplace today, it is a team process which can be divided into the three following steps: classify envelope, identify heat loads, and perform moisture inventory.[16]” If a space is too warm, wooden instruments may warp.

Climate Control[edit]

Since musical instruments are compiled of many organic materials such as: wood, metal, or plastic; it makes it difficult to preserve them if they are constantly on display in a museum. “Paper, leather, wood, natural fibers, and other organic materials absorb moisture; if they are kept in non-climate-controlled environments, serious conservation problems arise.[17]” These dilemmas could include corrosion or buckling. That is why it is important to keep humidity down and at a constant temperature. Remember; “Technical assistance from specialists in heating and ventilating engineering, the museum environment, and the conservation of musical instruments should always be sought before any major changes are considered.[18]

Light limitation[edit]

Similarly to how sunlight could damage the human eye, direct sunlight is harmful to artifacts too. Light makes colors fade and breaks down organic materials quickly. It is generally best not to place any artifact in a collection in direct light, whether it is natural or artificial. “Light damage is a commonly identified problem in collections, and is the subject of vast literature.[19]

Storage[edit]

Generally speaking, if an instrument is hung on a wall for display, it probably is rather stable because it is not moving. For musical instruments that “belong to a study or teaching collection, or… simply be in a drawer that experiences a great deal of in-and-out movement during examination of other specimens,[20]” they are more at risk of being damaged because more people are interacting with them. Therefore, it is best to create limits for either human interaction or accessibility. Even easy-gliding and organized shelving could come in handy.

Air Quality[edit]

There are always pollutants in the air of museums located in a cityscape, but for rural museums, the amount could be less. The following are four of Barclay's steps [21] to protect a museum’s collection from harmful air. First, “install air filters in the building.” Second, “absorbent cloth, charcoal and similar materials can be placed in storage cabinets or display cases to absorb pollutants.” Third, “keeping metal artifacts dry retards corrosion.” Lastly, “protective coatings are occasionally applied to metal instruments.”

Pest Control[edit]

Dead-Wood Borer Moth (Scolecocampa liburna)

Pest control is more closely associated with climate control measures because one effects the other. Many instruments are made of wood, including: guitars, violins, violas, pianos, harpsichords, banjos, cellos, basses, etc. Therefore, wood eating insects could damage them if left in a dark, damp, and drafty space. A careful way to get rid of the infestation is through “asphyxiation by carbon dioxide or nitrogen [because they] are the preferred methods, although some work still has to be done on the effects of changes in moisture content of artifacts during treatment.[22]

Conservation practices[edit]

Factors for functional restoration[edit]

According to Robert Barclay,[23] the following are a list of the top five reasons for functional restoration. First, a restoration can be completed if “the instrument is mass-produced.” Second, if “the instrument has been previously restored and most ephemera has been lost.” Third, with a little bit of work from a conservator, “the instrument can easily be put into working condition.” Fourth, “the original function can be reestablished.” Lastly, if “the instrument is in sturdy condition,” then it could be conserved.

Factors against functional restoration[edit]

Barclay [24] also mentions some explanations for not functionally restoring musical instruments and the top five reasons are as follows. First a musical instrument should not be conserved if “the instrument is unique.” Second, work should not be completed if “the original ephemeral features will be lost or altered.” Third, the way the instrument could be played is unknown or “the function is obscure and unlikely to be determined as a result of restoration.” Fourth, “the condition of the instrument is such that an accurate achievement of its original quality of function is unlikely.” Lastly, if “the function is so well understood that no new information is likely to be gained.”

Determining Playability[edit]

Playability depends on the overall strength of the architecture of the instrument as well as the musician’s interpretation or technique of a musical score. There are always two sides to every story: those for restoring musical instruments and those that are against. “The opponents of restoration argue that the truly authentic instrument is a reproduction of that relic, to the best of present knowledge and ability, in a state equivalent to what it was when new.’ ‘A great deal of progress could result from making a distinction between “soundability” and playability, where the former can often be achieved without any prerequisite restoration.[25]” Therefore, who in the cultural artifact conservation world draws the line between “soundability [26]” and playability?

Documentation[edit]

Classification Systems[edit]

There are around a handful of different classification systems known for musical instruments. From the 1960s, Curt Sachs and Erich Moritz von Hornbostel’s system for the Classification of Musical Instruments is divided into two main sections with several subcategories. The first section is “Idiophones- musical instruments in which vibrating solid material (ex. stone, wood, and metal) is used to produce sound and are differentiated according to how you make it vibrate.[27]” The subcategories are as follows:[28]

  1. Concussion
  2. Friction
  3. Percussion
  4. Plucked
  5. Scraped
  6. Shaken
  7. Stamping
  8. Stamped.

The second main section is “Membranophones- musical instruments that have vibrating membranes or skin that produce sound and are classified according to the instrument’s shape.[29]” The subcategories are as follows:[30]

  1. Kettle drums
  2. Tubular drums
  3. Friction drums
  4. Mirlitons
  5. Frame drums/Pot drums/Ground drums.

Condition reporting before and after restoration with photographs & other documentation[edit]

Similarly to the document(s) that a museum registrar might use to catalog an artifact into a collection, it is important to keep the proper paperwork during the conservation process being done on a musical instrument. (If interested, there is also an example of a museum condition report right here from the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art.[31] Additionally by taking before and after camera shots, it helps to document the steps taken by the conservator (or the rest of the conservation staff) while working on an instrument and the progress made during the duration of the project. A checklist could also help conservators stay focused on the task at hand trying to restore a particular musical instrument. But each plan is different for the conservation process depending on how severely wounded the instrument in question may be.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Pollens, Stewart (2010). Stradivari. online: Google Books. p. 279. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  2. ^ "Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice". American Institute for Conservation of Historic Works and Artistic Works. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  3. ^ Appelbaum, Barbara. Conservation Treatment Methodology. Elsevier. p. 145. 
  4. ^ Robb, Arthur. "Conservation and Musical Instrument Making". Arthur Robb- Luthier. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  5. ^ Smithsonian. "Play it Again". Youtube. December 10, 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  6. ^ Robb, Arthur. "Conservation and Musical Instrument Making". Arthur Robb- Luthier. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  7. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  8. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  9. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  10. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  11. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  12. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  13. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  14. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  15. ^ Long, Jane & Richard (2000). Musical Instruments. Abrams, NY: Heritage Preservation. pp. 106–113. 
  16. ^ Conrad, Earnest A. "The Realistic Preservation Environment". The National Archives. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  17. ^ Lamb, Andrew (1995). "To Play or Not to Play: The Ethics of Musical Instrument Conservation". V & A Conservation Journal. 15: 12–15. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  18. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  19. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  20. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  21. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  22. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  23. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  24. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  25. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  26. ^ Barclay, Robert L. "The Care of Historic Musical Instruments". International Council of Museums. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  27. ^ Estrella, Espie. "Classification of Musical Instruments". About Education. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  28. ^ Estrella, Espie. "Classification of Musical Instruments". About Education. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  29. ^ Estrella, Espie. "Classification of Musical Instruments". About Education. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  30. ^ Estrella, Espie. "Classification of Musical Instruments". About Education. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  31. ^ "Condition Report Form" (PDF). The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 

External links[edit]