Stearns Collection Site Visit

ILS 603
Assignment: Site Visit

The Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments

Kendra Frost, Sun Woo Kahng, and Nancy Vlahakis


The Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments at the University of Michigan began in 1899 when Frederick Stearns donated 1,400 instruments to the School of Music, which comprised his personal collection. This collection is marked more by his whimsy than any systematic approach.

The School of Music currently provides support for the collection by way of a one-quarter appointment of one faculty member and by providing space for storage of the instruments and space for an ongoing exhibit. Prior to this time, the collection was administered by two half-time faculty and four full-time teaching assistants. The collection is supported primarily by donations from members of a board of private citizens, and by various fundraisers.


The exhibit is visited primarily by school groups. On occasion, certain instruments such as violins are loaned out to students in the School of Music to play. The collection is rarely used for purposes of scholarly research due to the lack of funds and accessibility. This needs to be rectified as the Stearns Collection " one of the largest collections of musical instruments in the United States...[and] it is an extraordinary research and teaching asset of the School of Music."1

Organization of the Collection

The Exhibit

The exhibit hall consists of three levels connected by stairs. The visitor starts at the foyer on highest level and descends the stairs to the foyer and room at each of the other levels. There is no wheelchair access. The glass display cases are located mostly along the walls with a few cases standing in the center space. There is a wide variety of instruments displayed: a variety both in terms of geography and type. There is a New Guinea display and it is the only display that offers an auditory component. There are also one or two instruments that are set up to be played by visitors.The hologram display of an instrumental performance has not worked in four years.

The instruments displayed are organized according to the system developed by Sachs and Hornbostel in 1914. It is a primarily Euro/North American classification system that emphasizes the way in which sound is physically produced. Broken down into five categories, they are:

This system does not take into consideration other information, such as context for performance, people involved in performance, timbre, rhythm, pitch, volume, geography, time frame, and construction techniques. According to our guide, its greatest advantage is its efficiency in grouping and locating instruments. However, it provides little information to the visitor coming to see the exhibit.

Display cards accompanying the individual instruments gave information about the name of the instrument, the year in which it was made, the maker's name,and the physical description (composition and dimensions). Again, this does not help the visitor in learning about social and physial context, method of performance, or the sound produced. The instruments have been stripped of everything except their physical appearance. They are presented here more as artifacts for display, such as in an anthropology or art museum, rather than as the dynamic producers of sound that we encounter in real life.

The Storage Site

The instruments on exhibit represent less than twenty-five percent of the entire collection. The remainder is stored in the Argus building several miles away and can only be accessed by authorized personnel. The storage space is a large space similar to a warehouse with metal cabinets and shelves lined up in manyrows. Most of the instruments are wrapped in plastic sheeting onshelves and are not easily identifiable at first sight. Codes written on small stickers located on the upper corners of the cabinets and shelves are the sole organizing markers. A card index located near the entrance gives a record of the instrument and the location on the shelves. The cataloging principal is based on the chronological order in which the instruments were acquired, at first by Stearns and then by the curators of the collection. Records are kept in printed format and also on a database that was built several years ago and has since been converted to dBASE III. Attempts have been made to get staff to convert it to Filemaker Pro, but so far have been unsuccessful for lack of help. Many of the files are incomplete because of lack of active participation.


Our challenge, then, in designing an image database for this collection is to address these constraints of a narrow classification scheme, limited access, and lack of funding. Are there alternative description schemes that would enrich the records, thus providing more meaningful search capabilities? How can the image itself provide cultural and performance context? What audio and video technologies can be incorporated into the database to provide fuller intellectual access and perhaps even user interaction with the collection? For instance, could the user build a unique ensemble or create an original composition and have it performed instantaneously? What is the best interface for such a database, CD-ROM or graphical World Wide Web browser? Are there other prototype models to research and evaluate? CD-ROM With Open Eyes a model cd-rom interface. Notice especially treatments of size, country of origin, interactive components. Two sound tracks accompany the cd-rom. NETSCAPE WWW BROWSER MUSIC RESOURCES Musical Instruments of India This resource includes drawn representations on the top level; Sound Machine samples; textual descriptions of materials, sound, and performance context, and some digitized images.


1 James M. Borders. European and American Wind and Percussion Instruments: Catalogue of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 1988.