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Milestone marked with musical twist

Milestone in historic hall revamp marked with musical twist Musical instruments from the University of EdinburghÕs world-class collection today (Thursday) heralded the half-way point in a £6.5million renovation of a historic venue. The musical curiosities were played at a Ôtopping outÕ ceremony Ð traditionally held by construction workers Ð to celebrate progress in the restoration of St CeciliaÕs Hall, ScotlandÕs oldest purpose-built concert hall. Construction workers, University students, staff and project supporters gathered on site for a unique acoustic recital of a 19th century contrabass serpent, performed by musician Tony George. Pic caption: University students Giulia Bellato and Robert Hammacott join University staff Jonathan Santa- Maria Bouquet and Sarah Deters to watch Tony George's recital in the Concert Hall. The copper serpent played dates from around 1815 and was made in Glasgow. It is a descendent of the cornet and a distant ancestor of the tuba. The unusual instrument gets its name from its long cone, which is bent into a snake-like shape. -- Neil Hanna Photography 07702 246823

Musical instruments from the University’s worldclass collection heralded the half-way point in St Cecilia’s £6.5million renovation.

The musical curiosities were played at a ‘topping out’ ceremony – traditionally held by construction workers – to celebrate progress in the restoration of St Cecilia’s Hall.

Construction workers, University students, staff and project supporters gathered on site for a unique acoustic recital of a 19th century contrabass serpent, performed by musician Tony George.

The copper serpent played dates from around 1815 and was made in Glasgow. It is a descendent of the cornet and a distant ancestor of the tuba. The unusual instrument gets its name from its long cone, which is bent into a snake-like shape.

A 19th century ophicleide – an early predecessor of the tuba – was also played at the event.

Jacky MacBeath, Head of Museums at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The topping out ceremony was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate reaching a landmark moment in St Cecilia’s Hall’s renovation.

“The performance was a fitting tribute for the project and gave our students, partners and contractors the chance to experience some of the world’s finest instruments that will be on public display in the near future.”

New video on SCH demolition and building progress

Latest time lapse video from Malcolm Brown from the Digital Imaging Unit at the Centre for Research Collections captures the progress of works at St Cecilia’s Hall.

For those who know our location, the building site is tight, so Malcolm has had to be creative in capturing his videos and images. Malcolm has persevered through hours of standing on the pavement of Niddry Street and South Bridge as well as eating countless roasted chicken dinners at Zuhus restaurant in order to capitalise on various views of our building.

Look for more videos to come of the construction of the new entrance to St Cecilia’s Hall.

Violins, horns, diamonds and a crocodile: SCO Connects with MIMEd

Reaching out and establishing ties to the community are important elements of the redevelopment of St Cecilia’s Hall. But how does a museum work with the community when the building is closed? By creating partnerships and taking our collections out into the community.

Recently MIMEd partnered with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to provide quality performances and programming to audiences of all ages. SCO Connect, the creative learning team of the orchestra, worked with MIMEd Learning & Engagement Curator, Sarah Deters, to organise two Family Workshops which combined storytelling, live musical performance, and museum ‘show and tell’ for children aged 4-10 and their parents or care givers. The participants heard excerpts from The Crocodiamond, the story of Rita, a young girl who foils the theft of the largest diamond in the world. Providing the soundtrack for our storyteller were two musicians from the SCO playing violin, horn, and assorted percussion instruments.

Before and after the workshops participants had the opportunity to learn about, hear, and play items from the collections of MIMEd. Visitors young and old explored the sounds of serpents, horns, and even a Picco pipe (the smallest form of a duct flute).

The workshops were a great way to combine fun, learning, performance and MIMEd looks forward to future collaborations with the SCO and their creative learning team.



Sound as a Snake: conservation techniques for unusual materials


One of the MIMEd instruments that went under conservation treatment this month by

Sanxian prior to conservation

Sanxian prior to conservation

conservator Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet is a Chinese sanxian (MIMEd 437). The instrument, played both as a solo or orchestral instrument in Chinese classical music, is a plucked instrument with three strings. This sanxian was made in the mid-nineteenth century and was collected by John Donaldson, the founder of the Music Classroom Museum of Edinburgh University, and has been part of the University’s collection since before 1872.

An interesting element of sanxian construction is that the front and back of the body are made of snake skin – often that of a python. Although visually stunning, this material is susceptible to damage. Unfortunately changes in relative humidity over the years has caused the skin of the back and front of our sanxian to stretch resulting in tears.



Front 1

Tear in front of instrument body

Torn back section

Torn back section










To treat this instrument Jonathan used a technique he recently learned from a workshop given by Caroline Scharfenberg, a rare book conservator, which took place at the conservation studio of the Main Library. The technique is known as Japanese paper toning and it involves the use of Japanese paper to reinforce torn materials. The paper is then coloured using natural pigments to match the original material resulting in an inconspicuous repair. In the case of the sanxian Jonathan reinforced the tears in the snake skin, applying Japanese paper to the inside of the instrument.  He then toned and texturized the paper to match that of the snake skin.

Front 2

Front with Japanese paper before toning

Front 3

Front with toned paper









Back with Japanese paper

Back with Japanese paper before toning

Back with toned paper

Back with toned paper









Instrument ready for display

Instrument ready for display



Although the tears are still visible, this treatment has made the damage less noticeable and more stable. Now the instrument is ready for display in the redeveloped St Cecilia’s Hall.


Concert to raise money for St Cecilia’s Hall Redevelopment

Bacchus is a pow’r divine…! is a fundraising concert starring Andrew Kennedy, Winner of the Song Prize in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World (2005), which promotes the University of Edinburgh’s £6.5m vision to restore, renovate & make accessible St Cecilia’s Hall, Scotland’s oldest concert hall, with its world famous collection of musical instruments.  

Click HERE for tickets.  

kennedy concert

Recording our instruments

Working in a museum of musical instruments we are constantly aware that, for many people, it is the sound of the objects that is important above all else.  Needless to say, not all of our instruments are in playing condition – for various reasons – and those that are played often need to have constraints to ensure they are not subjected to any unreasonable risks.  But it is a strong belief that everyone who visits the collection should be able to get some experience of the sound of the instruments if they wish.

As the team address our interpretation for when St Cecilia’s Hall reopens, we have been keeping sound at the forefront and have been working on a project to record a number of the instruments.  This is not the easiest of undertakings, given that the care and safety of the objects is always our foremost priority.

As the instruments are currently housed for examination and conservation, it is the ideal time to do such a project.  Teaming up with fine musicians, many who regularly play in one of Scotland’s top orchestras, and using the recording facilities at the Music Box, Edinburgh College, we are in the middle of a project which will see us record guitars, violins, cello, high brass, horns, a shawm, trombones and low brass.

Selecting the instruments to record involves examining them to ensure there is minimal risk from playing, and that the instrument is in good musical condition.  Another factor which is important is to try and record instruments with which the museum visitor might be unfamiliar.  If people think “I wonder what that instrument sounds like”, we hope to try and provide the sound to answer that.

We have been working alongside the Digital Imaging Unit from Library and Collections, who have been recording the project itself, taking still photographs of the musicians with the instruments, and collecting material for a time-lapse film of the event.

Occasionally the team have filmed one of the instruments as it is being recorded as shown above.  This example is Sarah Bevan-Baker playing on one of our sixteenth-century Bassano violins.  This remarkable instrument is from the time before the violin was standardized in shape, and even more unusually, the instrument has no sides, so that the front and back join together like a closed clam shell.

Our most-accessed instrument!

In May 2014 the University’s site went live. Having been up for a little over a year it is easy to provide evidence to show how successful it has been – the MIMEd curatorial staff get many emails from people who have seen some of our instruments on the site. Indeed, the statistics on the site show that the MIMEd pages have been visited approximately 100,000 times in total.
Delving deeper into the statistics does throw up a few slight shocks. MIMEd has a number of iconic items, and the curatorial staff would perhaps have expected to see one of these classic instruments being accessed most. Perhaps the Taskin harpsichord, or the Ruckers harpsichord with its uniquely-surviving transposing keyboards. Or perhaps a really early instrument – the mid-sixteenth century Bassano recorder, or his violins, or perhaps the Schnitzer trombone from 1594. Even our Buchenberg lute, or a Staufer, Lacote, or Fabricatore guitar. Or even – judging from its popularity when on display before the collection closed – the Fender electric guitar
It was surprising that it was none of the above, but rather the harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni. In one way it is gratifying to know this – the Bolcioni will be the first instrument to be seen on the right-hand side as one walks into the keyboard galleries from the reception area once the collection re-opens to the public.
The Bolcioni harpsichord is listed as a triple-manual harpsichord, and perhaps it is the three keyboards that make it of particular interest. But in this is a tale that is well worth the telling. It was collected by Raymond Russell, who, in his book The Harpsichord and Clavichord (still the standard introductory textbook) included it as a genuine three-manual instrument. But, certainly soon after its arrival with Russell’s other instruments in Edinburgh – or possibly before – it was realised that much of what is seen is the handiwork of Leopold Francioilini, a notorious Florentine forger, and the instrument was included in one of his sale catalogues. Even after passing through his hands the instrument was further altered, gaining a new stand, and case exterior and lid interior decoration.

Bolcioni present
Franciolini’s work was fairly comprehensive and invasive. He started with a genuine single manual harpsichord by Bolcioni, replaced much of the interior (including cutting part of the soundboard) to fit the three keyboards (perhaps from an organ) into the case, made new bridges, wrestplank and nuts, and gave a registration where each keyboard had its own set of strings, albeit that the keyboards could be partly coupled to get more than one set of strings playing at a time. Looking at the instrument, it is unlikely it ever was playable in this altered state. But, just as the three keyboards are probably greatly responsible for the number of times the harpsichord has been accessed on, it no doubt helped fetch a price much in excess of if it was left in original condition.
Despite the alterations, the original state can be determined with only minor points of conjecture. It is particularly interesting (at least to organologists) that its original state has split keys (so that the note e-flat is a slightly different pitch to d-sharp, and g-sharp is different to a-flat). This was, in fact, quite common in Italy in the early seventeenth century, but it had an extended bass which allowed the player access to notes below to “normal” lowest one. This was very rare, with only a handful of surviving examples having evidence of this arrangement.
All of the displayed keyboard instruments will be organised into various themes. The Bolcioni will be in a section called “Copies and Counterfeits” alongside the Falkener harpsichord, Hubert clavichord and 1638 Ruckers harpsichord.

MIMEd abroad! Two members of the MIMEd staff travel to Boston to spread the news about the SCH redevelopment.


In June, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet and Sarah Deters travelled to Boston to attend the 44th Annual Meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) Conference, hosted by the musical instrument department of the Museum of Fine Arts. AMIS is one of the most important conferences in the field of organology and the annual conference brings together researchers, museum professionals, and collectors from across the world to gather and discuss the latest advancements and discoveries in organology.


Professor Donaldson throws a party when he is appointed the Chair of Music.

Professor Donaldson throws a party when he is appointed the Chair of Music.

At the conference Sarah presented a paper titled: Professor, Founder… and Scoundrel? Exploring the founding collection of Musical Instrument Museums Edinburgh. The paper explored the life and work of John Donaldson, who established the musical instrument collection of the University of Edinburgh in the 1840s and was responsible for the building of the Reid Concert Hall.


Highlights of scholarship from this year’s meeting included an entire session devoted to ancient Greek auloi: including discussions of their construction, use, historical context, and musical use; as well as a paper on Laurent crystal flutes (of which we have two) and how to determine their glass structure using UV light.

Laurent flutes

Laurent flutes fluorescing different colours depending on their glass composition.

In addition to providing an opportunity for conference attendees to hear the latest research on musical instruments, the conference also included trips to nearby instrument factories and private instrument collections. The MIMEd team visited Zildjian, a company that has been making cymbals since 1623, and Powell Flutes, a high-end flute manufacturer.

Looking at flute serial number 1 at Powell flutes.

Looking at flute serial number 1 at Powell flutes.

Cymbal performance room of the Zildjian factory

Cymbal performance room of the Zildjian factory














Attending conferences such as this provide an important networking opportunity for the staff of MIME, as well as being an outlet to introduce conference attendees to our collections and redevelopment project.  Throughout the conference Jonathan and Sarah were able to discuss the plans for SCH and invite members of AMIS to visit Edinburgh once we reopen in 2016.

St Cecilia’s captures donor’s imagination

The project to renovate Scotland’s oldest concert hall has received a generous donation from a University alumnus.

The bequest of £5,000 was donated by Robert McCracken, LLB who graduated in 1979.

Mr McCracken said: “I donated to the St Cecilia’s Hall project because it captured my interest and imagination in a number of different ways that were important to me.

“Firstly, it has strong historic significance for the City of Edinburgh, where I attended school and university, and to which I still have strong links. Secondly, it appealed to my interest in music, both for its beauty and potential as a venue for baroque music, and as a home for a wonderful period collection of harpsichords and other similar instruments.

“After very kindly being given a guided tour of the instruments, including a fascinating chat with the curator, I was hooked!”

The donation is a further boost to the project, which received a £100,000 award from Edinburgh World Heritage earlier this year, and £825,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund in March 2014.

If you would like to find out more about supporting the St Cecilia’s Hall project, please email