Museums of Music: Berlin


Exhibiting music highlights the challenge of presenting the intangible, through tangible and digital objects, with fragmented collections. In this post I explore these topics as experienced in various Museums of Music across the world while arguing that music can help close the gap between culture and heritage. In this post: Berlin.

Museum of Musical Instruments  – Berlin (visited July 2017)

The museum is part of the State Institute for Musicology. The collection originated in 1888 with 34 musical instruments, which soon grew with instruments from the Paul de Wit collection (1890) and later the César Snoeck collection (1902). In 1935, the collection of over 4,000 instruments was moved from the State University of Music to the State Institute for German Music Research. After the war, 700 instruments formed the base for a reconstruction of the museum and the Institute for Music Research, to include a world known musicology library. The museum moved to its current location next to the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1984 and currently cares for a collection of 3,500 musical instruments, of which less than a third are beautifully displayed.

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The collection includes a large section of strings, with a number of notable examples from Cremona, where the famous violin making families of Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari are from. Other exemplary specimens from northern Europe can be found from Absam near Innsbruck, by Stainer. The research and preservation of the historical instruments is conducted by three musicologists in collaboration with various departments of the Institute. One English publication of the challenges of Preserving Sound, or the preservation of wood instruments, can be found here. Restoration reports are part of the image archive of the museum, which includes ektachromes, SW negatives, photographs, and technical drawings. Other images in the collection include paintings, engravings, lithographs, and original drawings to supplement the documentation of historical instrument making and performance practice. Digital image access requires email request.

The objects in the collection are played, when possible, during the music presentations at the museum. The website references a list of CD recordings, as well as publications, though no hyperlinks are available. There is an audio tour available where a selection of the objects in the collection can be heard.

The strings collection is impressive, I had to notice all the different pegs, some are individual art pieces in themselves ! above a few examples. The overall collection is of the highest quality. The making of the violins is explained in a display From Tree to Violin.


The museum has further an impressive collection of Viennese classics, harpsichords, Berlin made instruments, automatic musical instruments, and electronic musical instruments. Some musical curiosities include the sewing table piano, an aeolian harp, and an arpeggione, which can be seen here. Franz Schubert composed a sonata for arpeggione, which is usually played with cello. Here a recording of the sonata with arpeggione and piano.

After viewing the electronic musical instrument collection and following the contemporary cultural line, I visited the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum. This time, I got to hear War Damaged Musical Instruments (2015) by Susan Philipsz (1965, Glasgow). You can hear Susan here talk about her project. A large ’empty’ room displayed the intangible sounds made by rests of metal wind instruments from the First World War. Each instrument was ‘displayed’ through a different megaphone. On an adjacent small room, the research behind the project was displayed, as tangible digital documentaries of the sounds.

The Museum of Musical Instruments in Berlin holds a carefully selected collection of tangible objects, while its research team is highly aware of the intangible dimension, and challenges of preserving sound. At a different museum, the intangible sound of damaged instruments was the exhibited object, while the research project of the artist brought attention back to the tangible instruments, which was displayed as a digital documentary.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

One thought on “Museums of Music: Berlin”

  1. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. Very informative post!. In fact I have been in Horniman Museum and Garden one day and there are a section of music instruments for different countries including some specimen of my country Yemen. It’s really nice.
    Much appreciates your clearly written and thought.

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