By Katie Smith
For nearly 50 years, the National Music Museum (NMM) has drawn visitors from all over the world to admire its historic holdings of musical instruments on the University of South Dakota campus. But as its collection and prestige have increased, so has the need for a larger, updated facility.
"We had to have more space," said Patricia Bornhofen, Ph.D., the museum’s manager of communications. "And it was time for the museum to enter the 21st century in many ways."
In March 2018, the NMM announced it would be adding 16,000 square feet to its 1910 building (formerly the Carnegie Library) in a $9.5 million expansion project. The addition includes a new concert hall, temporary-exhibits gallery, Galleria atrium, kid-friendly areas, research and conservation lab and about 4,600 square feet of new exhibit space.
The museum is now closed while the expansion and renovation are underway, but NMM staff expect it to reopen by 2021 with a vibrant new look—internally and externally—and offering an even more memorable visitor experience.
The museum’s new director, Matt Collinsworth, says, “It’s a tremendous opportunity for any community to have an institution like this. Up until now, I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”
The National Music Museum was officially founded in 1973, but its true origin began much earlier in the home of a Minnesota man with a passion for music. Arne Larson began collecting instruments in the 1920s; by 1964, his house was overflowing with them, and that was when USD stepped in.
Recognizing the educational and cultural value of Larson’s collection, the university moved his instruments to the former library on campus. Both Arne and his son, André Larson, would teach music at USD, and it was their shared passion for instruments that led to the creation of the then-titled “Shrine to Music Museum,” which eventually evolved into the National Music Museum.
In 1984, with transformative generosity, South Dakota natives and USD alumni Robert and Marjorie Rawlins donated $3 million to the NMM for the purchase of an extraordinary collection of Italian Renaissance and Baroque stringed instruments from revered collector Laurence Witten. Renamed the Witten-Rawlins Collection, the purchase was a turning point for the museum, even garnering notice from The New York Times, which wrote an article about the museum and its then record-setting acquisition.
“That collection put us on the map. It got the attention of people,” said National Music Museum associate director and senior curator Margaret Downey Banks, Ph.D., who has been with the museum since 1978.
Thanks also to proceeds from the sale of Arne Larson’s childhood farm in Minnesota and other critical contributions from various donors, the museum was able to acquire many more instrument treasures. But all that growth meant that the historic Carnegie building was rapidly running low on room.
Today the National Music Museum’s collection comprises more than 15,000 musical instruments plus thousands of related artifacts and archival items. Yet, only about 1,200 of those instruments have been able to be on public display due to space limitations.
“That was only a fraction of the collection,” says Bornhofen. “The lack of space kept the museum from being able to show the depth and diversity of its holdings and from refreshing exhibits more regularly.”
Among the National Music Museum’s many prized possessions are the world’s earliest-known surviving cello; the oldest-known playable harpsichord; all “voices” of original Adolphe Sax saxophones; a peacock-shaped lute from 19th-century India; and guitars owned by the likes of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
Collinsworth, who began his tenure as museum director this past March, agrees that the contemporary space will offer new ways of displaying NMM’s broad range of instruments. “Our world-class collection will have a more world-class facility to go along with it,” Collinsworth said.
Part of that enhanced facility will include a new entrance to the National Music Museum. While the Carnegie building will remain central to the museum, it will not be the portal of entry. Instead, visitors will pass first through a glassed-in atrium that will connect the original building with the
"We had to have more space and it was time for the museum to enter the 21st century in many ways." - Patricia Bornhofen
Jo Wohlenburg, USD alumna and a second-generation NMM board member who has served since 2000, said the addition will also allow more room for a visitor-pleasing dedicated gift shop and improved elevators.
“I think it’s magnificent,” Wohlenburg said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Although the building will be getting a facelift, the NMM didn’t want to lose is historic Beaux-Arts Carnegie aesthetic. “So many people love and comment on the grandeur and detail of this building. It is beautiful and classic,” Bornhofen said. “We didn’t want to change that façade—just freshen it up.”
At the same time, the Carnegie’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems—relics decidedly not worthy of collecting—will be replaced.
But updating the building itself is just one facet of the project. Inside the NMM, galleries will be fleshed out with new items and interactive exhibits, as well as with updated imagery, descriptions and context. Fonts will need to be chosen, colors selected and photos organized. This complex process will make the years spent renovating “go by in the blink of an eye,” Collinsworth said.
“You just think things magically appear on the wall, and they don’t,” he said. “There is so much museum craft and so many decisions that get made during that process.”
Previously the director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, Collinsworth is stepping into his new role at a time of momentous transformation for the NMM. He embraces the challenge: “It’s exciting. There are enormous opportunities here for the National Music Museum, for the university, for the community. I can’t imagine a better place to be.”
But with all that change comes a bevy of logistical problems to solve. While $9.5 million has already been raised for the construction of the building, another capital campaign is working to raise about $10 million more to redesign the interior, Bornhofen said.
"Our world-class collection will have a more world-class facility to go along with it." - Matt Collinsworth
In addition to the architectural project, thousands of instruments must be reviewed, re-catalogued and carefully transferred out of the existing building before it can be renovated.
In past summers, the museum’s concert hall would be used as the NMM’s temporary-exhibit gallery, precluding any live-music shows during that time. But with the expansion of the building, “we’ll have both a performance hall and a separate special-exhibit gallery,” Bornhofen said, “ensuring that repeat visitors have new things to see all year round.”
The Vermillion Area Chamber and Development Company has been instrumental in the museum’s metamorphosis, partnering with the NMM to build and finance an off-site storage structure, which will be called the Center for Preservation and Research. Musical instruments that were in the NMM’s Carnegie building will be moved here for the duration of expansion construction. Museum staff hope to begin that big move this summer. Other NMM holdings will eventually be stored at the center as well.
“Moving such a collection is a massive effort,” Banks said. “It takes months to painstakingly prepare to safely move it. And moving it back in will take months.”
Once the renovation is completed, ideally by 2021, the museum will be a place that honors music’s history and celebrates what it is becoming. The NMM will also be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023, a milestone that points to the future as much as it does to the past.
“Getting the renovation project done isn’t the end—it’s only the beginning,” says Collinsworth. “Museum collections are dynamic, ‘living’ things. We will continue to acquire and collect instruments, and there will always be new stories that we need to tell.”
The museum has also undertaken the project of digitally cataloguing its holdings, starting with Arne Larson’s original 2,500-instrument collection, as well as all the NMM’s instruments made before 1800 (including the previously mentioned Witten-Rawlins collection). Uploaded to a section of NMM’s website called eMuseum, this information is a great visual resource and way for visitors and scholars to explore these treasures virtually. Data on the rest of museum’s thousands of instruments will be uploaded over a span of years.
Aside from its high-caliber offerings, part of what makes the National Music Museum unique is its unassuming location. The museum may reside in a small city in a sparsely populated state, but its location has not diminished its influence, staff say. The NMM’s instruments would be treasures in Berlin, Paris or any world city, but a point of pride for the museum is its South Dakota connection, forged so long ago and fostered still.
“Arne Larson used to say, ‘It’s no farther from New York to Vermillion than it is from Vermillion to New York,’” Banks says. “Does it take more effort for some people to get here? Sometimes. Do they get here? Yes. People come here from all over the world to see these instruments—trekking to Vermillion from as far away as Australia.” A Polish scholar once spent a week examining the museum’s saxophones as research for a book he was writing.
While its collections are certainly attractive to music experts, the museum also strives to be equally inviting to the curious passerby who spots one of the NMM’s catchy billboards on the interstate and decides to stop in. “Once people get here, they can’t believe it,” Banks said. “You don’t have to be a musician to like or enjoy looking at such fascinating musical instruments.”
It is an NMM goal to ensure that its local and regional patrons, particularly, return to the new museum again and again. Now that it can change out its galleries more frequently, the NMM is closer than ever to making that mission a reality.
“A person who visits the NMM four or five times a year will always encounter something new to engage with,” Collinsworth said. “When people come back to us in 2021, I think the environment they enter will give them a renewed appreciation for how important this collection is and how important it is for the town, state, region, nation, world and for music.
“The NMM is one of the world’s finest collections of musical instruments, and it’s here in Vermillion, South Dakota. I think that’s something that everyone here should cherish and be proud about.”
While the National Music Museum is undergoing a historic time of its own in South Dakota, several stringed instruments will journey to Italy this fall for a year-long display.
Rather than putting some of the museum’s most famous pieces—including Stradivari and Amati violins—out of sight in storage, the NMM will send several to the ancestral home of fine stringed instruments, Cremona, Italy, where they were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. History’s most famous violinmakers dwelled and worked there.
“It’ll be the trip of a lifetime,” said Jo Wohlenburg, one of the NMM board members who will travel to northern Italy for the installation.
The historic exhibit, “Reunion in Cremona,” will be open at the Museo del Violino from Sept. 21 to Oct. 18, 2020.