diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 16, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Musical Museum

Location: 399 High Street, Brentford TW8 0DU [map]
Open: 11am - 5:30pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £7
Brief summary: mechanical treasurehouse
Website: www.musicalmuseum.co.uk
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

There are many London museums starting with the letter M, but most of these are merely the Museum of Something. So for my A-Z I hunted down a proper incontrovertible M, the Musical Museum, and ended up in Brentford just down the road from my K.

Musical MuseumGood news, the Musical Museum isn't anything to do with Mamma Mia, The Lion King or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Surprising news, it's not anything to do with double basses, French horns or electric guitars or either. Instead it's a repository of automatic musical instruments, the sort where you wind a key, turn a handle or flick a switch and they play themselves. The collection started out in the 1960s as a labour of love by Frank Holland, a devoted pianola-fancier with a few church rooms at his disposal. It wasn't until last year that the whole shebang went on permanent display in purpose-built premises overlooking the Thames. It's a fairly unlikely-looking museum, resembling a compact modern warehouse with bright blue cuboid attachments. Don't let that put you off.

You might not think that mechanical instruments are a thrilling subject for a museum, but think of this more as an early history of the home entertainment centre. Before the invention of gramophones, Walkmen and mp3 players, there was no easy way to playback music if you couldn't play an instrument yourself. To hear the hits of the day in your sitting room you needed a musical box, pipe organ or player piano. These were, by necessity, both intricate and expensive, and therefore most of the exhibits on show here were only ever rich people's playthings.

Musical Museum, main galleryThere are only a handful of galleries in the museum, all of them on the ground floor. But limited size shouldn't be a problem if you time your visit to attend one of the excellent guided tours. I spent a full hour in the main gallery listening to Michael the museum's director nipping through a complete history of mechanical music using illustrations drawn from the collection. He did a fine job keeping the varied audience of adults and children interested, educated and entertained, and he got to play a fair few of the instruments in the room too.

First up was an early musical box (none of your cheap rubbish, this elaborate contraption would have drawn admiring glances at any 19th century European social soirée). As technology improved the internal metal cylinders became more complicated, and pipes and bells and whistles were added for good measure. Paper rolls made a big difference, fed carefully into the machines providing a choice of tunes for the Victorian parlour. "Look," said Michael, "no hands" as he pumped out a tune on an upright pianola. Then he bounded across the room to the giant pipe organ that had once been "Queen Victoria's iPod", and rounded off the hour with an electric fiddle in a coin-op jukebox.

We were left to explore the other ground floor galleries independently, and probably missed plenty as a result. But ooh, yes, that was definitely a Theremin (shame there was nobody to play it) and this was a proper barrel organ (laid out in a semi-convincing representation of a local Brentford alleyway). Those seeking an inexpensive memento of their visit could pay £1 in the shop for a genuine paper roll with a tune punched into it (these were nothing special in their day, merely the Edwardian version of a seven inch single). It was only the invention of the amplifier in 1926 that finally killed the whole lot off.

Mighty WurlitzerBut there was one very special survivor still to see in the concert hall upstairs. Here, lovingly transplanted from the Regal Cinema Kingston, was a Mighty Wurlitzer! This came complete with mighty organist, although he didn't rise up through the floor - the organ and its associated pipework take up enough of the museum building as it is. But when the Art Deco organ suddenly lit up in glowing neon (red, then pink, orange, blue and lime) and the first notes echoed out around the auditorium, I got very special musical goosepimples. Three tunes (including Quando Quando Quando and a Fred & Ginger classic) weren't really enough, but the Museum puts on regular concerts for those who prefer their organ sustained for a couple of hours.

I was impressed by the enthusiasm and knowledge of the volunteers who run the museum. I learned a lot about a fascinating subject I had worried might be intensely dull. I even enjoyed a cup of tea and a yummy traybake in the cafe, which is unheard of. The whole place had genuine appeal for a somewhat cultured clientèle, so if your kids' idea of great music is a tinny ringtone then I'd keep them away. But the Musical Museum merits a far wider audience than I suspect it's getting. Play on.
by train: Kew Bridge   by tube: Gunnersbury   by bus: 65, 237, 267

M is also for...
» Markfield Beam Engine Museum (closed for refurbishment until later this year)
» MCC Museum (cricketing shrine, home to The Ashes)
» Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (I've been) (you really must go)
» Museum of London (semi-closed for refurbishment) (I've been)
» Museum of London Docklands (free entry this weekend) (I've been)
» Museum of the Order of St. John (closed for refurbishment until next summer) (I've been)

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