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Instrument Identification:
Research Tools at the National Music Museum

by Arian Sheets
Curator of Stringed Instruments

Over the course of a year, the National Music Museum receives an overwhelming number of inquiries about musical instruments owned by the NMM itself, its membership, and the general public. The curatorial staff tries, whenever possible and reasonable, to provide information in addition to that already available on the NMM website or other common sources, about the hundreds of submitted photographs, descriptions, and personal research visits, in order to educate the public about instruments and their role in the history of material culture. To aid those in quest of such knowledge, the NMM also posts detailed technical and research information about selected groups of instruments in the NMM’s permanent collections on the NMM's website via annotated checklists and interpretive essays.

Some may wonder where the curatorial staff actually starts its research process. How do we know what a particular instrument is, who made it, where it was made, and when? Often, previous research and familiarity with the field will point the NMM staff in the right direction, but even then, staff members frequently have to seek out additional resources in order to fill in the details or confirm attributions.

Published Materials

Each category of musical instruments (for example, pianos, violins, woodwinds, brasses, or non-western instruments) has been the subject of numerous historical studies; some of these have proven their usefulness to the extent that they are considered standard reference works in the field. Other major reference works can include books about particular makers or locations where instruments were made. The NMM endeavors to keep current its comprehensive library of more than 5,000 musical-instrument-related volumes of books and more than 20,000 periodical issues. This can be a significant challenge due to the cost of acquiring rare, limited-edition works, and the NMM often relies on the generosity of individual donors, as well as the sharing of resources on the University of South Dakota campus. One such example is the Mahoney Collection, consisting of over 4,800 books about the history of violin-family instruments and related topics, which is housed in the USD Library Archives and Special Collections. Its generous donation by John and Barbara Mahoney in 2006, ensured that staff and researchers availing themselves of the resources at the NMM will also have access to the most comprehensive library about violins preserved in any public institution in the United States.

Instrument Examination

Since the study of musical instruments (organology) as a distinct research field is relatively new and the subject matter extraordinarily diverse, there are many topics of potential inquiry for which there are no secondary sources. It is the role of a great research collection to house the primary source materials and research aids necessary to make breakthroughs in situations where the resources found in a standard library might lead a researcher to a dead end. Some of the most important tools for primary research are the musical instruments themselves, sometimes well-preserved and functional, while at other times fragmentary and damaged. Observing details of construction and matching instruments with similar characteristics can reveal new information, especially when multiple examples can be compared. For example, if a group of five instruments share certain technical features and one is signed by a maker or distributer, then all can be reevaluated as possibly having the same origin.

Front view of The King Henry IV violin, from CT scan
Side view of The King Henry IV violin, from CT scan

When examining a musical instrument, the NMM's curators note physical details, such as measurements and materials used, but sometimes advanced scientific techniques are also employed. For example, NMM Conservator, John Koster, has experience with microscopic wood identification, which is performed by observing thin slices of wood under great magnification. Differences in the botanical structure of the wood can help distinguish between types that are otherwise similar to the naked eye. Acoustical studies have also been conducted by Sabine Klaus, the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Curator of Brass Instruments, using a system known as BIAS (Brass Instrument Analysis System), which is a digital method for measuring the acoustical behavior of brass instruments. In the last eight years, the NMM has also coordinated with regional healthcare providers to use medical equipment such as CT scanners and endoscopes to view details that cannot be observed or measured without destructively disassembling important objects.

Left: Two views of the internal structure of The King Henry IV violin by the Brothers Amati (Cremona, ca. 1595), from CT scans taken at the Sanford Vermillion Medical Center.


Scrapbook containing publications from the Holton Company

Above:  One of several scrapbooks preserved in the NMM's Holton Archive.

Other clues helpful in identifying musical instruments can be found in the NMM’s archival collections, which include one-of-a-kind documents relating to the history of instrument manufacturing, such as personal letters, music, and musical-instrument-related artifacts and accessories. The NMM is home to the surviving archives of the Conn, Holton, and Leblanc companies, three of the most important American manufacturers of band and orchestral instruments. The Conn Archive was originally assembled by Senior Curator, Margaret Downie Banks, when she began researching that company's history and products in the mid-1980s.

In 2008, as both the original Holton and Leblanc factories were being shut down, Banks successfully convinced the administration of their parent corporation, Conn-Selmer, Inc., of the importance of allowing the NMM to carefully pack, transport, organize, and preserve instruments and documents from both the Kenosha and Elkhorn, Wisconsin, facilities [see Margaret Downie Banks, "Conn-Selmer Donates: Holton's 'Revelations' Find a New 'Collegiate" Home,' National Music Museum Newsletter 35, No. 3/4 (August/November 2008): 1-5 & 7 and "Conn-Selmer's Donation: From Kenosha to Vermillion: Preserving the Leblanc Legacy," National Music Museum Newsletter 36, No. l/2 (February/May 2009): 6-8.].

The artifacts and paper records that were saved by the NMM's curatorial staff are invaluable for researching the history of these American manufacturers. The chance to retrieve and preserve such material was a rare, exciting, and occasionally daunting opportunity for the NMM's staff, which shouldered the tremendous responsibility of choosing what to preserve, figuring out how to organize and care for these materials, and finally, working to make the archives accessible for research. The NMM curatorial staff was passionate about preserving these items, however, knowing only too well the difficulties inherent in trying to learn about the history of companies whose archives do not survive.

Files from Leblanc Archive

Above: Some correspondence files preserved in the Leblanc Company Archive at the NMM.

Instrument Makers' Tools and Techniques

The NMM is also home to the workshop of John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto, two of the most renowned builders of archtop guitars. As a result, it is possible to study their building techniques and tools, all of which are preserved together in one place—a rarity for such historically significant instrument makers, whose personal tools are often split up after their deaths. The ledger books and patterns from the same workshop can also used to identify the original owners of the instruments produced, as well as to reconstruct missing parts of instruments. It is also possible, in the absence of a written record concerning a particular maker’s techniques, that surviving tools can assist in the reconstruction of their building methods and techniques.

D'Aquisto and D'Angelico Workshop Reconstruction at the NMM
The D'Aquisto and D'Angelico Workshop reconstruction is on display in the Lillibridge Gallery.

Patents and Trade Marks

The NMM holds another rare research tool in the form of a copy of the Official Gazette of the U. S. Patent Office, complete from 1890 onwards, with additional, sporadic issues dating between the 1850s through the 1880s (amounting in total, to more than 300 linear feet). Whereas Google Patents and the U.S. Patent Office's websites have greatly increased the facility of identifying patents relating to musical instruments, such search methods are not fool-proof. Ultimately, there remains no good substitute for researching brand-name trademarks and legal disputes than perusing the volumes themselves in the NMM's Sally Fantle Archival Research Center. In some cases, an instrument being studied may be marked with only a patent date, which can then be searched in the bi-weekly Gazette issues until the novel aspect of the instrument is found in a patent abstract and drawing. Finding such patents allows the researcher to confirm the inventor’s identity and intended improvement. Additional biographical information about individual inventors and makers can often be found through census and city directory searches, accessible by subscription to

Musical Instrument Manufacturers' Archive (MIMA)

First Leblanc price list published in Kenosha, Wisconsin, 1946

Among the most valuable research tools in the NMM Archives are catalogs and related materials from musical instrument manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers that enable one to pinpoint which products were offered by whom, over what period of time, and at what price. The NMM's MIMA includes more than 18,000 trade catalogs, price lists, periodicals, photographs, and related ephemera documenting more than 2,000 musical instrument manufacturers and distributors (with an emphasis on American manufacturers). It is unparalleled elsewhere. Catalogs in the MIMA date from the mid-nineteenth- through the twenty-first centuries. The NMM continues actively to collect in this area, even including the newest published catalogs currently available, in order to be prepared to continue conducting research well into the future. Several donors have, in the past few years, substantially built up the NMM's MIMA collections relating to fretted stringed instruments. In addition, the Alan G. Bates Harmonica Trade Literature and Ephemera Archive, consisting of 2,400 items to complement his world-class collection of 2,500 harmonicas, was donated in 2008.

Left:  Rare copy of G. Leblanc Co.'s first price list published in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1946. Leblanc Archive, NMM. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., 2008.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that mass-produced instruments can often be extremely difficult to identify with any degree of certainty. Many times such instruments are assigned marketing-friendly brand names and do not bear either the name of the manufacturer or the date of production. Additionally, construction and materials used in large-scale production may be extremely similar among various manufacturers, thereby thwarting attempts to associate even similar groups of instruments with particular makers. The sheer number of catalogs, models, and different years of production for even one manufacturer can make the memorization of such information extremely difficult, to the point that either research aids must be constructed or the research must be continually reviewed as new resources become available through the on-going expansion of the MIMA. The rewards, however, are great, as many different types of data can be gleaned from this material, including the documentation of changes in features on certain models, what product offerings were phased in and out, and how they were priced. Pitfalls, however, include the fact that often discontinued items languish in catalogs years after the end of their production, due to the producer's need to sell residual stock. In addition, changes in the physical characteristics of instruments are not always reflected in the graphics found in wholesalers' and retailers' catalogs due to the impracticality of re-doing expensive print images for only minor changes.

Research Aids

To illustrate one type of work done behind-the-scenes at the NMM, I assembled a research aid to help me date the NMM's expanding collection of Styron instruments designed by Mario Maccaferri. Many of the NMM's examples of Maccaferri's work came from the Estate of Arne B. Larson, the collector whose instruments were impetus behind the founding of the NMM. They were held in storage until they were identified by NMM staff as significant. In 2006, Jeremy Tubbs reviewed this group of instruments in the course of his doctoral dissertation research about Mario Maccaferri. The following year, in order to supplement our holdings of Maccaferri’s work, Tubbs donated one of the rare, late Maccaferri Styron violins that were the inventor’s last major project. In 2008, Geoffrey Rezek, a long-time ukulele collector, decided to help us build our collections of similar instruments, so that we can continue to offer an unprecedented level of data about even more models. Faced with a growing number of Maccaferri ukuleles (and significant questions about their dating), I assembled all of the wholesaler's catalogs at the NMM in which these instruments were offered and systematically listed the models exactly as they are described, along with pricing information. Such research is very time-consuming, but absolutely necessary for establishing the ground-level, primary data from which later studies can be built. Such research aids are, by definition, works-in-progress and are subject to change as more data comes to light. Nevertheless, they are indispensible for producing reliable scholarly work, as well as for accurately answering some of the many inquiries submitted by the general public.

Link to research aid:  Listings for Mario Maccaferri's Plastic Instruments (1953-1968), Compiled from Wholesalers' Catalogs in the NMM's Musical Instrument Manufacturers' Archive (MIMA), compiled by Arian Sheets.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (August 2010)

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Most recent update: August 27, 2010

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