Profile: Shem Mackey - Museums Association

Profile: Shem Mackey

The musical world's demand for new, restored and specialist stringed instruments is met from a college near Chichester
Interview by John Holt
Shem Mackey leads the making stringed musical instruments programme at West Dean near Chichester, an independent college run by the Edward James Foundation that specialises in conservation, arts and crafts.

How do you teach your subject?

It’s mainly practice-based. Apprenticeship is a dirty word these days but it’s the closest description of what we do; there’s a huge emphasis on working at the bench.

The trade and the heritage sector require people with considerable skills who are also comfortable working with objects and the majority of our students go on to work in museums or set up their own businesses, but I recommend to everyone that they spend time in workshops.

What are the basic materials that you use?

People want instruments that accurately reflect the performance from a particular period so that can dictate what we use. We obviously have replacement materials for ivory and tortoiseshell. Otherwise, it’s native fruitwoods such as plum, apple and cherry and a lot of maple, plus spruce from the Alpine region.

What has changed over the years?

There’s been a demand for smaller basses in recent years. Back in the 1960s when the early music movement began to revive, there was a dogmatic approach to instrument sizes and people thought they needed a big bass instrument to provide a big sound.

Now people realise you should choose an instrument that suits your size. I encourage students to immerse themselves in the history and art of the period, to see – for example – how most baroque architecture was based on proportion, not simply measurements.

How did you start?

Back in Ireland, I played flute and whistle and I wanted something that would combine that with the family woodworking tradition.

How did your eye for detail find fault with a famous 17th-century viola?

The Colichon is a mahogany instrument of legend and I was interested in making one so the Musée de la Musique in Paris allowed me to see its one. The instrument is in pieces but when it was presented to me in the lab, I knew that something wasn’t right.

I discovered it was made out of Cedrela odorata, which is a wood that was used in Cuba for furniture. A piece may have arrived on a ship and ended up in a Paris workshop where it was used in error.

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