Extended History


The idea for a museum began to evolve in Percy Grainger’s mind in the early 1920s, shortly after the death of his beloved mother Rose.  In a letter to his friend Balfour Gardiner dated 3 May 1922, Grainger makes two mentions of a “Grainger Museum”:  “All very intimate letters or notes should be deposited in an Australian Grainger Museum, preferably in birth-town Melbourne”, and “Could plot of ground (owned by me) next to White Plains home be used for building [a] small fireproof Grainger Museum?”.

Within ten years Grainger’s concept had evolved sufficiently to approach the University of Melbourne with a proposal for a museum.  At that time the Vice-Chancellor was Sir James Barrett.  The head of the Conservatorium was Professor Bernard Heinze. Grainger, writing to him on 13 June 1932, described the terms under which the museum would be built:

  1. I to build the building (fireproof) at my expense and to arrange it at my expense.
  2. I to endow a certain sum for the upkeep of the museum.
  3. I to have a free hand to include whatever I choose in the museum, but the University to have the right to decide which things they did not want displayed (in the event of their disagreeing with my judgement in such matters).
  4. The museum to be shown by daylight only, and to contain no electric lighting or other lighting (to avoid fire danger).
  5. The University to guarantee a permanent home to the museum.

By the beginning of 1933 Grainger was feeling very confident about the University accepting his proposal. On 23 January he wrote to Arnold Dolmetsch: The Melbourne University is considering building a Grainger Museum; in their grounds and if so I will want to start it going with a Sargent picture, Grieg manuscripts and lots of other letters, manuscripts, etc that I have been collecting for the purpose. I feel greatly tempted to donate to the Melbourne University a complete chest of viols. Could you find time to let me know exactly what instruments would be needful. I would dearly love to give my birth-town (Melbourne) a complete chest of these incomparable instruments and to start them off on the Dolmetsch road.

The University Council approved the proposal on 6 March 1933. Work began on the building in 1934, and in 1935 the first section, consisting of the central foyer and the two front galleries, was completed. A third gallery was projected, opening off the rear of the foyer, at right angles to the existing axis, and in the junctions of these galleries were to be two small rooms. However, Grainger's ideas were constantly evolving, and the design went through several transformations.

The Second Building Campaign

In early 1935, even before the first section of the building was finished, Grainger wrote to his aunt Clara Aldridge outlining a novel plan of building, in which the two small rooms have been replaced by two new galleries radiating at about 30 from the main axis. This was discussed with John Gawler, the University architect, and adopted. This however, left a circulation problem within the spaces, as the only access to them would be through the foyer. Gawler seems to have come up with the solution by joining all the galleries with a semicircular link running around the back of the building. It is this linking gallery, allowing continuous flow throughout the building, which gives the Grainger Museum its characteristic shape. ;All of this was included in the extensions, and is shown on a plan dated 3 October 1938. Grainger himself was on site in November, and joined the builders in laying bricks. The extensions were not completed when Grainger left Australia in December 1938, and were not ready for use until about the middle of 1939.  Grainger had intended to return in about 18 months, to supervise the building of a second storey, reached by a spiral staircase.  But the remainder of the design was never carried out, and the building remains unfinished to this day.

The Concept of the Museum

From the very beginning Grainger had conceived his museum as a dual-purpose institution, which he categorized as the “Grainger Museum” and the “Music Museum”.  His definitive statement on this occurs in a long letter to Sir James Barrett, by now Chancellor of the University, dated 24 August 1938:

“I propose that the title of the building be “Music Museum and Grainger Museum”, the contents of the Music Museum to be chosen and arranged by the University, and the contents of the Grainger Museum to be collected and arranged by me, but the displaying of all the exhibits in the Grainger Museum to be subject to the approval of the University.  One museum could start to the left of the entrance hall, the other museum to the right of the entrance hall.  The two museums need be distinguished from each other only by the titles “Music Museum” & “Grainger Museum” where they meet or begin.  Those boundaries could be quite elastic……

“As I see it, the purpose of the Music Museum would be to preserve and exhibit things of general musical interest and things connected with the general musical life of Australia……

“The Grainger Museum would preserve and display exhibits collected by me during the last 40 years for the purpose of:

1.  stressing the creative side of music, as distinct from the merely executive side……

2.  preserving the MSS of Australian composers……

3.  showing the great part played by Great Britain in the development of what we call “classical music”……

4.  creating a centre for the preservation and study of the early music of Europe and of the 20th century music……

5.  creating a centre for the preservation and study of folk song……

6.  creating a centre for the preservation and study of native music in, or adjacent to, Australia……

7.  facilitating the study of the nature……of composers……

8.  to corelate [sic] in the museum exhibits, many different aspects of composers and their works……

9.  showing the connection between the various branches of Nordic music……

He reiterated these ideas in a letter to Richard Hindle Fowler of 4 October, and added: “When people talk of paintings, they mean paintings, not reproductions of paintings……But when people talk of music they seldom mean the music itself, but merely performers and performances of music.  I feel that a musical museum, stressing the creative side of music, might……do something to right this lopsided attitude toward music.”

Grainger’s future plans for the Museum were however never to come to fruition, as the onset of World War II curtailed its completion, and left Grainger on the far side of the Pacific, unable to oversee the management of the collections with any degree of familiarity.

The War and After

Before he left Australia, Grainger had asked Richard Fowler to be the curator of his Museum.  But because Fowler was already employed in the Victorian public service, official permission had to be sought.  The Chief Secretary rejected the idea out of hand. Grainger’s solution was to appoint Fowler’s wife Dorothy Nicholson as the official curator, so the two of them could work on the Museum and its collections together.  This arrangement worked well, and the Fowlers remained in charge of the Museum until 1966.

During these years the Museum suffered several adversities.  The first was the War, during which the Museum became a store, as other parts of the University were given over to war effort, and an acute space shortage developed.  All manner of things, from stage scenery to architectural mouldings, were crammed into the Museum.  At the end of the War the Museum was given over to the Women of the University to use as a base for their work with the refugee problem, in particular the Save the Children Fund.

At the time when the Fowlers were beginning the Herculean task of clearing the foreign objects from the Museum and trying to restore order, Wilson Hall was destroyed by fire, in January 1952.  The undercroft of the Hall had been the University’s furniture and stationery store. The authorities looked around for a replacement depôt, and saw the Grainger Museum.  In Richard Fowler’s words: “So in it all came, racks and racks of paper, ink, pins, clips, cellulose tape and all the rest, and once again the Museum became a warehouse”.  This situation lasted until 1954, when a new Wilson Hall, with a new basement store, was completed.  The anticipated return of Percy and Ella Grainger hastened the clearing of the Museum, and by 1955 it was clean and presentable once more.

During the War years the incomplete roof, a reinforced-concrete slab, had developed serious leaks.  Richard Fowler remembered these problems: “Before long the bitumen covering yielded to the elements in a series of places, and the first announcement of a breached spot would be a waterfall inside, generally on a piano or series of framed photographs.  Calls for help to the Maintenance Department were answered slowly or nor at all……One result of this chronic wetting and almost complete absence of effective ventilation was a damp atmosphere.  This caused the starting of glued joints in furniture, the onset of mould growth in certain exhibit items, and worse still, a relentless plague of silverfish.”

With the return of the Graingers, the bulk of the collection started to arrive, in a seemingly endless procession of shipping crates.  The large pieces of furniture and the Reed-Box Tone Tool came into the Museum at this time.  Percy and Ella Grainger remained in Melbourne for nine months, returning to the USA in 1956. During this period most of the displays were set up, the archive put in order and the collections inventoried. But Percy Grainger’s health had begun to fail, and he did not achieve all he wished.  This was the last time Grainger saw his Museum.  He intended to return in 1960, but his health prevented it, and he died in White Plains on 20 February 1961.  Ella Grainger accompanied her husband’s body to Australia for burial in Adelaide, but did not visit the Museum on that occasion.  She made three subsequent visits to the Museum, in 1963, 1965 and 1967.

Growth of the Collections

Right from the start Grainger had definite ideas of what should be held in his Museum.  Replying to Sir James Barrett on 2 January 1933, he listed some of the things he had in mind:

“Sargent’s charcoal portrait of me.

Bunny’s oil portrait of me.

Various drawings and paintings of my mother and me.

Photos signed by Grieg, Grieg manuscripts, Grieg’s watch and other Grieg relics.

Other important musical manuscripts.

Gramophone records of English Folksongs, Spanish Gypsy Music, Oriental and Madagascar and South Sea Music.

First editions of all my musical publications up to date.

The piano I practised on in Melbourne from about the age of 6 to 12

Various instruments (guitars, percussion instruments, etc.) on which I have made first experiments or used in important performances.

Letters, photos, paintings (by me and others), and other personal and musical records, etc.”

Before long, however, his ideas had expanded, as shown in a letter written (in Danish) on Australia Day 1935 to Karen Kellerman (née Holten): “There shall be preserved all possible things of my youth (my first piano, cradle, etc.), Aldridge and Grainger family relics, Scandinavian British and American music manuscripts – in short everything that has contributed to my personal view of art.  The museum shall emphasize all the romantic and personal factors……that make art personal, characteristic, race-typical and emotional…….”

A flow of letters from Grainger to Dorothy Nicholson through 1938 and 1939 indicates that there were already a large number of objects in the Museum, being prepared for display. A letter from Richard Fowler to Grainger dated 29 April 1940, mentions the safe arrival of another consignment, including the paintings of Alfhild Sandby, the Blanche portrait, the Hardanger fiddle, music, photographs, etc.  But with the threat of invasion, or at least hostile action such as air raids, Grainger grew anxious about the collection, and requested that the more precious items be moved to a place of safety.  These items included the Sargent drawing, J.H. Grainger’s paintings, Jelka Delius’ paintings, the Bunny portrait, Rose Grainger’s letters, Grieg’s letters, and Grainger’s own manuscripts.  One of the last war-time parcels, sent by ship in 1941, was a box of gramophone records, the Library of Congress transcriptions of Grainger’s wax cylinders of folk songs.

By 1952 shipments had recommenced, including clothes worn by Cyril Scott, Rose Grainger’s clothes, furniture from the house in London, and quantities of letters, manuscripts, photographs, books, sheet music, and other memorabilia.  This mass of material was set up by Grainger and the Fowlers in 1955 and 1956.  Grainger returned to White Plains “unspeakably relieved” at what he had managed to achieve in Melbourne, despite the limitations imposed on him by illness and age.  For the next few years he continued to send material to Melbourne, including a large collection of music by Josef Holbrooke, recordings and piano rolls.

At the time of his death, Grainger was negotiating with Cyril Scott about the possibility of Scott donating a Broadwood piano to the Museum.  After his death, Ella continued to send shipments, including the Kangaroo Pouch and Electric Eye tone-tools and the Blüthner grand piano, to the Museum.  By the end of the 1960s most of the collection was in place.  There were subsequent transfers of material from other repositories, such as the Library of Congress and Adelaide, to supplement the main holdings.

Other collections of material have come into the Grainger Museum, as it has come to be seen as a major repository of Australian musical history.  These include the work of women composers, such as Mona McBurney, Florence D. Ewart and May Brahe; collections of musical programs; the Nickson and Floyd collections; the Royal Victorian Liedertafel collection; and additions to the Marshall-Hall collection first acquired in 1938.

The intentions of Percy Grainger for his Museum have to a large degree been realized, despite vicissitudes and setbacks.  Having survived even the threat of demolition, the Museum is now registered as part of the national heritage, and is recognized internationally as a major musical research resource.