Silenced musical treasures languish in Mich. vault

Posted Jan. 15, 2012, at 5:27 p.m.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A massive cache of musical treasures that’s grown to include a fragile harp-piano, the pioneering Moog synthesizer and the theremin used for “The Green Hornet” radio show has been shuffled over the years from a theater to an unheated barn and now languish, rarely seen or heard, in a Michigan storage vault.

Spanning centuries and continents, the instruments worth at least $25 million by their chief caretaker’s estimate are packed and stacked in an out-of-the-way storage room with water-stained ceilings. It’s hardly the environment envisioned for them when Detroit businessman Frederick Stearns gave the University of Michigan the base of the collection a century ago with instructions that the instruments be exhibited — not invisible.

“The only way I can characterize it is Tut’s Tomb, because it’s been so forgotten about for so many years,” said Steven Ball, director of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments. “The collection has been in a holding pattern for 112 years. This is a national treasure — it deserves the dignity of either being properly housed … or to be dispersed in such a way that it could be.’ ‘

Such “orphan” collections pose problems for many academic institutions, despite the prestige that comes with owning them. Kris Anderson, director of the University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery, said he discovered a repository of nearly 1,000 forgotten paintings and other artwork spanning more than a century. He found out about the collection because its main basement storage space was being reused.

Anderson, a vice president with the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, said numerous campuses have collections, such as costumes at his school and slide rules within the University of Colorado’s math department, that aren’t part of universities’ museums and risk being discarded. Doing so would be an “irreversible decision to devalue … the history of the institution itself, “ he said in a recent paper.

“Resources are tighter for everybody,” he said. “When the pie shrinks, administrators need to balance the needs of a lot of different constituencies. … You have to be willing to look for advocates in places you’d never before.”

That was the case with “The Gross Clinic,” a Thomas Eakins painting that Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University agreed to sell in 2006 after 129 years of ownership to a museum being built in Arkansas by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. heiress Alice Walton.

“We are not a museum,” university President Robert Barchi had said about the decision to sell the masterwork, which depicts an operation in progress by a famous surgeon, Dr. Samuel Gross. Protests erupted over the loss of what some argued was part of Philadelphia’s heritage and supporters raised $68 million to keep the painting in the city. It’s now owned jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

For many reasons, the Stearns Collection has never had a permanent home. Less than 1 percent of the 2,500 items in the collection is displayed in exhibit cases at the university’s music school and nearby Hill Auditorium, but most of the keyboards, horns, drums, stringed instruments and other rare musical miscellany have had a nomadic journey.

At present, they’re in a vast room accessible by freight elevator in a building where workers manufactured classified optical and camera equipment during World War II. Cabinets are bursting with items, leaving many instruments stored on the floor. Along one narrow passageway is the 19th-century harp-piano, one of only a half-dozen known to exist, as well as a large Swiss-made music box from the same era and a group of African and Asian instruments. Another section houses several saxophones by inventor Adolphe Sax. Newer additions include the first commercially produced Moog synthesizer and the theremin, the electronic instrument that provided the insect-like buzzing on the “The Green Hornet” show produced in Detroit in the 1940s.

Their out-of-sight circumstances pain Ball, who has a copy of a letter Stearns wrote before donating about 940 instruments in the late 1890s.

“Under no consideration whatever however would I turn the collection over the university except with the understanding that it should be immediately housed and installed,” Stearns wrote. “I would not consent to it being packed away for some future regent to mount to suit themselves or to neglect entirely.”

His original donations were displayed in the outer lobbies of Hill Auditorium for decades, though Ball said the instruments were getting “baked to death” from sunlight through the windows. In the 1970s, the collection — much at that point relegated to cabinets — was cleared out of the auditorium and shipped to an unheated barn far from the central campus. There, hundreds of instruments were lost, stolen or destroyed, according to records Ball has reviewed.

There was a later attempt to install the collection in a former fraternity house, but that building was lost in a swap between the music and engineering schools, Ball said. It’s been in its current off-campus room since the mid-1980s.

University officials recently committed up to $400,000 to create a climate-controlled storage space for the collection. Ball is grateful for that but said it underscores the bigger challenge: finding millions more and figuring out how the collection can be seen, heard and experienced.

“It’s a partial solution to a much larger problem, and that’s because the ideal museum is where everything is in the same environment,” he said. “The collection is a huge burden financially to try and operate it and staff it, let alone trying to get a site on the university master plan to try to get a building.”

Even amid the struggle for space, Ball said the collection has received three or four major gifts of instruments since he came on board a few years ago, and grew by about 250 instruments in the past year.

“That’s the only way for the collection to move forward,” Ball said. “That’s the only way for us to maintain our relevance.”

Ball said his mission — and the university’s — should be to honor Stearns’ wishes and provide the instruments with a permanent, appropriate home, preferably one where barn critters have never roamed.

“For them to deteriorate and no longer be able to give joy to eye or ear in any way, that’s perhaps the greatest tragedy,” he said.

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