Recovering Silent Sounds


In this blog, Veronica Wilson discusses her project working with musical instruments in storage. Veronica started this project as a Thompson-Dunlop Intern and then joined the Conservation & Collections Management team as a Library Assistant (funded by Thompson-Dunlop endowment and the Nagler bequest).

Wolfson gallery at St Cecilia’s Hall

The University of Edinburgh holds a rare and unique collection of musical instruments. Many stand proudly on display in St Cecilia’s Hall, the music museum of the University, visible to the public and played by musicians from around the world. The rest are in storage, available only by request for research, study, or viewing. The collection at the University Collections Facility (UCF) consists of instruments too large to be stored in any of the other locations. Though the time since they were last played can span lifetimes, the collection is anything but silent.

Plastic-wrapped instruments, University Collections Facility

The instruments and accessories stored here moved to the UCF from different storage areas of the Main Library and from the Reid Concert Hall’s basement. When I started my internship for St Cecilia’s Hall in June 2022, all but a few recent acquisitions were wrapped in plastic bubble wrap, which had started to degrade. That wrapping method creates a microclimate which prevents pest and water incursion, but doesn’t allow for regular conservation or inspection of the instrument. To keep the collection alive we must let it breathe. Thus, the aim of the Thomson Dunlop internship was to create made-to-measure covers from storage-safe material, allowing access to each instrument for research and conservation purposes. Our material of choice for the task was Tyvek, a lightweight plastic-based fabric.

Instruments with new bespoke Tyvek covers

Tyvek must be sewn carefully because each puncture is permanent. It requires clips instead of pins, and top and bottom edges lined with stiff tape to keep the material from getting caught in the machine. I started the internship in June and sewed over 120 covers by the end of August. I returned in November as a Library Assistant, to finish what I had started, sewing covers for the remaining instruments of the collection stored in the UCF and creating barcode labels that linked with Vernon CMS (collection management software).


Instruments with new bespoke Tyvek covers

I spent my time in the UCF measuring, drawing out patterns, calculating seam allowances, sewing, and printing labels. This storage unit holds centuries of musical history, but each instrument means so much more. Long-forgotten people live on through hand painted motifs, through names carved on spinet lids and writing exercises on the undersides of repurposed piano stands. They may not be on display, but these “songs that voices never shared” are still breaking the silence of time[1].

[1] Simon and Garfunkel

ICOM UK 2023

Today’s blog comes from Collections Registrar Morven Rodger, reflecting on the 2023 ICOM UK Conference in Glasgow, addressing legacies of colonialism nationally and internationally.

In August 2018, while on a courier trip in Washington DC, I paid a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture1. In one of the very first galleries I entered, a label mentioning the Earl of Dunmore caught my eye…

‘In November 1775 Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation that offered freedom to “all [indentured] servants, Negroes, or others… that are able and willing to bear arms” for the crown. But this promise was not fulfilled.’

I recognised the name immediately. John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, built the Pineapple, an architectural folly a stone’s throw from my hometown. I knew about the building, and the symbolic significance of the fruit, yet here I was, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, being offered a new perspective on this familiar figure. I remember being struck that I’d had to travel all this way to hear the other side of his story.

A lot has happened since 2018, and following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the sector is increasingly working to address to the ongoing global impacts of slavery and colonialism. In September 2020 Zandra Yeaman became the first Curator of Discomfort at the Hunterian Museum in the same month as Glasgow Museums appointed their first Curator of Legacies of Slavery and Empire, a post now held by Nelson Cummins. In conversation with Paul Guardulo from NMAAHC, the three discussed strategies for Centring the enslaved and including perspectives from the global majority. The panel recognised the curatorial burden of this work but emphasised the ways this practice must permeate all areas of collections management, from enriching metadata to incorporating the cultural practices of source communities in the storage and handling of collections.

This was followed by a session on Interpreting and dismantling colonial education. As a child in Grenada in the ’50s and ’60s, writer Jacob Ross was still being taught from the Royal Reader, a series of 19th Century imperialist texts published by Edinburgh firm Thomas Nelson2. Ross spoke of the vast improvements to the Grenadian education system post-independence and the persistent gap between Britain’s understanding of its relationship with the Caribbean and the Caribbean’s conception of Britain. Lisa Williams of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association shared her work with teachers across Scotland, building the ‘emotional scaffolding’ to empower people to speak up and expand the curriculum to include the global impact of Scottish history. I was particularly interested to hear from Dr. Rianna Walcott from the University of Maryland, who co-founded Project Myopia in her time as a student at the University of Edinburgh.

In the third session, Working through climate and political crises while your home is being destroyed, curator Patricia Allan spoke about her experience working at Glasgow Museums while her loved ones in Ecuador continue to be endangered by earthquakes in the region. Climate and political crises are a conservation issue, as they result in the loss of material culture, communities and ecosystems, and relief efforts impose their own political agendas. Sahar Beyad from National Museum Liverpool contrasted the charitable response following the 2019 fire at Notre-Dame with that of the June 2022 earthquake in Afghanistan. On an interpersonal level, Shaheera Pesnani, Historic England, challenged us to show up for colleagues who are impacted by natural and man made disaster outwith the European community.

Finally, Professor Anthony Bogues joined us virtually from Brown University to share his thoughts on three exhibitions: The Abyss: Nantes’s Role in the Slave Trade and Colonial Slavery, 1707–1830, at the Musée d’histoire, Nantes, the Slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum and Afterlives of Slavery at Tropenmuseum, both in Amsterdam. All three exhibitions tackle the evils of slavery, but Professor Bogues sees a missed opportunity to draw a line between colonial slavery and present day anti-Black racism.

On the second day, delegates were invited to tour the city’s museums. At the Hunterian Museum, Zandra Yeaman spoke again about her role Curating Discomfort, and the interventions made through the museum by a team of Community Curators. Across the road, in the Hunterian Art Gallery, Dr Lola Sanchez-Jauregui explained how a key work from the gallery’s collection, A Lady Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, serves as a gateway to explore the transnational impact of the British fashion for tea drinking. On display in the same gallery are still lifes demonstrating access to rare and ‘exotic’ produce, a portrait of an agent for the East India Company, examples of fine china produced in response to British tastes, and a sculpture edition by Christine Borland, a family grouping of bone china skulls with designs evoking colonial trade.

A bronze statue of a man holding scientific instruments on a plinth depicting scenes of slavery and missionary work.

The statue of David Livingstone, Cathedral Precinct, Glasgow

After leaving the Hunterian, I joined the Black history city walk led by the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. The tour began at the statue of David Livingstone, cited by Dr Stephen Mullen in the Glasgow Slavery Audit. Livingstone was critical of the practice of slavery but continued to accept funding from cotton masters to pursue his explorations. Visible around the base of the statue in the image above are scenes of Livingstone’s missionary work (front) and an image of an enslaved man being struck with a lash (right). Despite such upsetting imagery, a campaign to resite the statue has so far been unsuccessful.

The tour continued to take in the Tontine Heads, followed by a stop on the original site of the University of Glasgow to learn about James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn a medical degree. The tour concluded outside the Gallery of Modern Art, which originally served as the mansion of tobacco and sugar merchant William Cunninghame. In front of GoMA stands an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, mounted on a plinth depicting scenes of the Duke’s colonial suppression of India. It’s unclear whether this aspect of the Duke’s legacy persists in the public memory, but either way, this statue and its traffic cone topper have long been symbolic of the city’s disdain for its imperial forefathers.

A bronze statue of a man on horseback with a traffic cone stuck on its head. The statue sits in front of a Neoclassical sandstone building with Corinthian columns and a mirrored mosaic pediment.

The Duke of Wellington statue outside the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

1 If you are interested in hearing more about NMAAHC and the development of their collection, I recommend A Journey to the ‘Blacksonian’ from NY Times podcast Still Processing, which features an interview with curator Joanne Hyppolite.

2 The publishing archive of Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd can be found among the Rare Books and Archive collections of the University of Edinburgh.