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Brief History of the Wesleyan World Instrument Collection and the Virtual Instrument Museum

Among universities, Wesleyan University has one of the largest and most diverse collections of world musical instruments. It contains three classes of holdings: daily-use instructional instruments and sets of instruments (e.g. gamelan, Ghanaian drums, steelband); instruments brought to Wesleyan by students, alumni and faculty; and donated instruments.

Early in Wesleyan's history, Methodist missionaries and alumni brought back exotic curios from around the world. Among objects from Africa, Oceania, and Asia were musical instruments, including a splendid African elephant-tusk trumpet.

By the early 1950s, with no better place to house this growing collection of miscellany, David McAllester (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Music) and his colleagues put aside space in what became known as “The Judd Hall Museum of Anthropology and Geology.” As instruments continued to come in, McAllester's office, already filled with Native American art and craft, became an unofficial annex to the collection.

By the early 1970s, the World Music Program had grown to impressive size, and the instrument collection was given its own room on the first floor of the Music Studios building in the new Center for the Arts. Gen’ichi Tsuge, who came as a graduate student and left as a faculty member, was the collection’s first real curator. Tsuge not only organized and cataloged all the instruments, but also opened a small workshop in the basement of the World Music Hall for their repair and restoration. The workshop became a unique and productive component of the collection, helping to launch the careers of instrument makers such as Dennis Waring, Fred Stubbs, Tom Randall, and David Raymond.  A program of loaning the instruments to students was instituted as well as a pattern of recycling instructional instruments to serve current curricular needs. In [2005?], the collection moved to a renovated, climate-controlled room on the second floor of the Music Studios. Recently, instruments have also been loaned out for class demonstrations and for private lesson instruction.

Tsuge was succeeded by a number of curators, most of who were graduate students with some affinity or special interest in musical instruments. These included (chronologically): Alan Thrasher, H. Collins Lein, Dennis Waring, John Kelsey, Tom Randall, Mitchell Clark, Fred Stubbs, Junko Oba, Marzanna Poplawska, Monica DaCosta, Isaac Hirt-Manheimer, Powei Weng, Devanney Haruta, and Webb Crawford.

The first version of the Wesleyan Virtual Instrument Museum (VIM) in 2003 began a new era for the instrument collection. The VIM shared its collection with online visitors beyond Wesleyan’s physical campus, and a year after its launch in 2004, statistics indicated several hundred visitors per day worldwide.

After a brief hiatus and series of updates, the virtual collection, now VIM 2.0, reopened to online visitors in 2021. Like its earlier version, most pages contain photos, text descriptions, and audio and video recordings. Hosted by Omeka, a digital collections platform, the VIM 2.0 offers new ways of exploring instruments through collections, exhibits, ensembles, and an interactive world map.

The future looks bright for Wesleyan’s World Instrument Collection. Finding funding sources for instrument upgrade and conservation is now a priority of the Music Department and the Center for the Arts. Future Wesleyan curators will be charged with restoring some of the more valuable instruments as well as organizing rotating musical instrument displays on campus and beyond. The collection will continue to solicit more instruments and become a major resource and asset to the local arts community and globally.

--Dennis Waring, Mark Slobin, Eric Charry, Devanney Haruta

VIM 2.0 Credits

Francesca Baird (Digital Projects Librarian)
Eric Charry (Professor of Music)
Matthew Elson (Unix Systems Administrator)
Devanney Haruta (Graduate Student Teaching Assistant)
Rachel Schnepper (Director of Academic Technology)