Museum of... Royal College of Music Museum, London - Museums Association

Museum of… Royal College of Music Museum, London

This wide-ranging collection features the world’s earliest-known stringed keyboard and an original Mozart concerto manuscript
Museum Of Music
The museum’s display of wind instruments is filled with examples from London, a leading production centre in the 1800s when over 400 makers had workshops in the city RCM Museum

The museum is part of the Royal College of Music in South Kensington, London, and reopened last October after a £3.6m redevelopment, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.


“The museum reflects three moments in the creative process,” says curator Gabriele Rossi Rognoni. “Music is creation, the moment when a new idea sparks; music is craft, the moment when the idea is developed through craft into a finished piece; and music is performance, the final moment when this idea is presented to an audience. We show a selection of ways these three moments can happen. Performance, for example, could be performing for yourself, or for a small group or for a large audience.

Each piece relates to a story that shows a different way in which creation, craft and performance can happen in music. We’re trying to inspire musicians and visitors to relate to the history of music through objects. We try to change the perspective to show that music is not only sound, but also about the people who produce and collaborate. Through these dynamics, we have music.”

Made from incredibly rare and expensive materials, only the wealthiest clients could afford opulent guitars like theseRCM Museum

The collection started with the founding of the college in 1894, when art dealer George Donaldson donated his instruments, paintings and musical manuscripts. “The college has received donations throughout its history,” says Rognoni. “The collection has grown to [14,000] objects, which includes paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, musical objects, photographs and engravings.”


The Royal College of Music Library also holds collections of manuscripts, prints, concert programmes, letters and books.  The museum’s most recent acquisition is a portrait of composer Samuel Arnold by Thomas Hardy. Arnold was a vocal opponent of slavery and composed three works set on Caribbean sugar plantations, including the first anti-slavery opera, Inkle and Yarico, in 1787.


The Hidden Treasures of the RCM Collections exhibition (until 29 August), features some of the highlights of the collection: the earliest-known portrait of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt; personal items belonging to the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; and the composer Edward Elgar’s trombone. There is also a bust of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams by the artist Jacob Epstein on display, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The collection of instruments includes the earliest dated guitar (1581); the earliest-known stringed keyboard (c.1480); and several English viols (1590s-1690s). Some instruments are maintained in playing condition and can be heard at concerts. The collection also includes the original manuscript for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano concerto in C minor, written in his own handwriting.

Help at hand

The museum is run by six permanent staff and 12 volunteers. The volunteers include those who have the skills to help the museum with conservation.

Survival tips

“My key tip is partnering and networking,” says Rognoni. “Connecting music museums is vital, as they can struggle to make an impact on their own.”

Michael Rudling is a freelance journalist

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