A Review of London’s Royal College of Music Museum

After five years of refurbishment, the Royal College of Music is finally ready to re-open its museum of rare instruments.

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Bigger and better than before, the Royal College of Music’s collection of rare musical instruments is a sight to behold.

I’ve been meaning to visit the Royal College of Music (RCM) Museum for a while – meaning, it was added at one point in history to my ever-expanding “To visit: London” list, which sits quietly in its digital cavern, waiting for me to remember that – oh, I live in one of the most museum-heavy cities in the world, I should probably go visit a new one!

And I am certainly a heavy-weight champ when it comes to museums – but unfortunately, as with many other aspects of life, Covid-19 has put a stop to my gallivanting, with many museums closing their doors or moving entirely online (see also my visiting National Gallery’s online Artemisia exhibition).

Ironically, the RCM Museum was closed years before there was even any sight of a pandemic. It was due major refurbishments, and in October 2016 the RCM was awarded a whooping £3.6 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This fund would go towards moving the museum to a new location, the museum refurbishment, conservation and digitalisation efforts, as well as other good things like new performance spaces, practice rooms and a cafe.

But lo and behold, after 5 years of being closed, silently watching as the local calamities just flew over its head (Brexit, Covid-19, 3 lockdowns etc.), the museum is finally open! As I’m subscribed to the RCM newsletter, I was promptly informed of its reopening date, plus an invitation for their newsletter subscribers to be among the first to book their tickets for the a free visit.

Well, don’t mind if I do! So in Oct 2021 I booked my ticket, downloaded it on my phone, then mused over having to pay a £1.95 online handling fee for a free ticket (what exactly are you handling, RCM? Is this your way of crowdfunding to pay your hosting costs? Because that’s not half bad of an idea!)

Tickets were timed with restricted visitor numbers to allow for social distancing inside, so I arrived promptly. The new museum was moved to the lower level of the college, so I went down the pretty spiral staircase and saw the large museum sign.

Projection of professor Terence Charlston performing on the Dolmetsch clavichord

I showed my ticket, was handed an audio guide and then ushered inside. It is a fairly large room filled with musical instruments, some in glass cases but some not, oil paintings, tiny screens attached to the wall to view specific interviews. This level is the permanent collection, while a set of stairs leads you upstairs to the temporary exhibition level.

Let’s start with the good, and one surprisingly good thing was the audio guide! Now, audio guides can be a hit or miss, especially if it’s something niche and under-funded – but that wasn’t the case for the RCM. I’m happy to report that I was incredibly pleased with the audio guide!

Besides the usual “key in the number next to the exhibit to learn more about it”, it also included audio recordings so you get an idea of how this old instrument was meant to have sounded – and I don’t remember any other music museum having this feature. Particularly impressive were the original video recordings made my RCM-associated musicians and teachers on the VERY instruments in the exhibition (or in cases where the originals were too fragile, copies), which I had a lot of fun watching. It also had very interesting information providing historical context and an in-depth exploration of the making of each instrument.

a guitar in a glass case
The Belchior guitar, considered the oldest guitar in the world (1581)
the audio guide in front of a guitar
Audio guide providing more information about the world's oldest guitar

I was particularly taken with the various early keyboard instruments, and when I mean early I mean super early! This is the clavicytherium (an upright harpsichord), considered the earliest surviving stringed keyboard instrument, dated c.1480 and originating from Germany.

The audio guide was very handy here, providing a heap of extra information. I really liked the video explaining how the instrument was built and the accompanying musical performance.

The recording was of RCM professor and early keyboard specialist Terence Charlston performing a 15th century manuscript (no author) entitled ‘Incipit bonus tenor Leonhardi’, manuscript currently held in the University of Wroclaw Library, Poland. Charlston is playing on a copy of the clavytherium made by Burnett Goldhurst in 1973, since the original is far too fragile and valuable to be played on. The same performance was also uploaded onto RCM’s Youtube page.

Check out more photos below, including its catalogue entry.

The clavyctherium
book catalogue showing the clavicytherium

Another gorgeous instrument was this 1531 harpsichord by Alessandro Trasuntino from Venice. There’s no named artist for the beautiful painting, but they likely drew inspiration from Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” painting.

I took more close-up shots of this harpsichord because it’s really breathtaking!

a decorated harpsichord
close-up of keyboard
close-up of inner painting

These are some really cute pocket violins (pochettes) carried by dance masters as they travelled between gigs and lessons. Many of them had eye-catching details and designs with ornate patterns and carved heads. The one at the bottom even has a pop-out fan!

These particular exhibits originated from Germany, Italy and France, ranging between 17th and 18th century, mostly from unknown makers – though the first violin on the left is by Mathias Wörle from Augsburg, dated c.1675.

There were a few more keyboard instruments I really liked, like a Dolmetsch clavichord, a square piano and a spinet, and I spent just over an hour viewing the entire exhibition and listening to the audio guide. But this doesn’t disguise the fact that RCM’s new-fangled museum is, really, just a large room. And that’s a bit on the bad side – since it is the Royal College of the Music, and after receiving such a large grant, I expected a bit more, particularly as the guide mentioned that RCM has a lot more rare instruments in its archive.

Another negative is the audio guide’s proximity sensitivity. I would finish listening to an explanation, marvel at the beauty of the instrument in question, take two steps to the right and then get a heart attack because the audio guide would immediately auto-start the next section, detecting that I moved closed to the next relevant instrument. I was not very happy this feature – I’m not keen on being bossed around by technology!

But overall, I was happy with my visit and the new look of the museum, though I wish it would have been more grandiose. But until the next refurbishment, there’s also their online collection to explore – over 20,000 digitalised objects – so I encourage you to have a look at that.

This article is part of the Music Museums series, where I review museums focused on musical instruments or a composer’s life and work. Read the rest of the series here.