From the Collection July 2017

Sharon Wong shares her experience working with the Hirschfield Mack collection as part of the Cultural Collections Projects Program.

As an emerging conservator, one of the most interesting aspects of the occupation is the privilege to work behind the scenes with cultural heritage collections. Arranged in alphabetical aisles with boxes of all sizes plastered with neatly printed labels and inventory identification numbers, a museum’s collection store is probably one of the most organised places you would ever find yourself in. As part of the Cultural Collections Projects Program at the University of Melbourne, I was afforded the opportunity to work with the amazing and diverse range of objects housed in the maze-like permanent storage facility that is the Grainger Store.

This project involved preparing a collection of experimental wooden musical instruments that were going on loan to the Ian Potter Museum of Art (IPMA). The selection included five colour chord twelve stringed sound boxes and a colour chord twenty-one stringed flat sound box. These instruments were made by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack who was a German artist trained at the Weimar Bauhaus School of Art and a significant contributor to art education in Australia. Sets of strings are tuned as chords and labelled with a different colour to enable the person to play by colour instead of sight reading musical notes. These instruments were mainly played in various children centres and schools in Victoria. Music samples collected from these instruments by Dr Anthony Lyons, composer and academic at the Victorian College of the Arts in preparation for the Nite Art 2017 event, also provided soothing accompaniment to the clatter of trolleys and clicking of cameras during the condition reporting process.The seamless connection between art and music further illustrates how such examples of twentieth century Australian musical culture form such an integral and fascinating part of the collections at the Grainger Museum.

Figure 1: An example of a colour chord twelve stringed sound box (left) and a colour chord twenty-one stringed flat sound box from the Hirschfeld Mack collection at the Grainger Museum (right).

As part of the loan procedures, I assessed the condition of the instruments by noting physical aspects of deterioration such as abrasions, fading, loosening of the strings etcetera. This step would help the curator to determine if an object could be safely displayed and any local treatments that may be required in order to prepare it for exhibition. The condition report would also assist with documenting the physical state of the object before it went on loan to enable a comparison to be made when the objects are returned. After the instruments have been assessed, they were securely packed in archival storage boxes for transport to the IPMA. I enjoy packing and housing collections as it involves plenty of manual dexterity and a little creativity in carving foam and wrapping archival tissue around the objects to maximise support and minimise damage during transport. Any updates to the instrument records were also entered into the EMu collection management system at the Grainger Museum to ensure completeness in documentation. These collection management and conservation activities provide an insight into the interdependent nature of various museum functions and the work involved in facilitating events such as exhibitions. The ability to be part-time sleuth, occasional historian, methodical scientist, resident accountant, amateur artisan and full time conservator also keeps me interested and challenged in this multidisciplinary profession.

Figure 2: Noting the fading of the paint and abrasions in the wood on the twelve stringed sound box (left) and fitting different pieces of foam and wrapping archival tissue around the instrument to determine the best approach towards packing the object for transport (right).

As a musical illiterate that struggles to maintain some semblance of rhythm, I have great respect for musicians and feel very privileged to be entrusted with assessing this collection. This experience has shown that music does indeed transcend boundaries and possessing such unique instruments in my primary school would have saved many music teachers from being subjected to my atrocious sight reading skills and tendency to play discordant notes. Musical abilities aside, these instruments are on their way to be displayed in The Score exhibition at the IPMA due to the assistance received from the fantastic volunteers and staff at the Grainger Museum. Further information on the objects above can be found via the Grainger Museum online catalogue.

- Sharon Wong, Cultural Collections Projects Program Volunteer

More Information

Grainger Museum

03 8344 5270