• Musical Museum

From Ben Filmer-Sankey

Hello everyone! I thought I’d kick things off with a brief introduction to some of the work I’m doing at the museum.


Since September I have been working on the museum’s roll library. In the library there are around 20,000 (a number yet to be confirmed) paper music rolls for automatic musical instruments and many of these rolls will be played and heard in the galleries during tours around the museum. More recently the team has expanded to 2 with Kate Neale, a PhD student in ethnomusicology, and together we have begun tackling the museums large collection of standard 88 notes. These are by far the most ‘common’ type of roll, and are an important resource for tour guides who bring the collection to life in the galleries.

Stacks of Aeolian Themodist rolls in the roll library

Manufactured from 1908 all the way through to the 1970s the 88 note rolls document changing tastes in popular and classical music – as Gilbert and Sullivan gives way to the musical librettos of the 1920s, into Jazz ballads and by the 60s bombastic recordings of Liberace himself. After cataloguing these rolls it will be easy for anyone at the museum to find rolls by composer, pianist or piece of music and bring the music to life in the galleries. It will also give us a sense of our own collection and the ability to respond to the occasional research enquiry that we do receive. We have started with our large collection of Aeolian Themodist rolls – 88 notes so-called due to their ability to ‘distinguish’ ‘themes’ through an added expression system. Extra holes on the edge of the paper rolls line up with musical notes in the middle to trigger dynamics on suitably equipped player pianos.

The hope is that this process can lead on to further projects involving the roll library. Digitisation is one possibility as the museum might start to explore how it can increase access to its collection. Roll scanning is something that has been done by many experts and enthusiasts around the world – notably Stanford university with their collection of Welte rolls (http://library.stanford.edu/blogs/stanford-libraries-blog/2015/11/piano-roll-scanner-project-prsp). Hand in hand with digitisation comes the possibility of reproducing rolls. Many instruments demonstrated day in and day out in the galleries are supported by only small collections of paper rolls. These rolls are originals, irreplaceable and susceptible to damage when used repeatedly. It would be hugely beneficial to the museum to be able to acquire or produce replicas that guides can happily use without the fear of damaging something that cannot be replaced.

However, I like to think that the collection has more value than just to be a source of music for tours, and in upcoming posts I also hope to introduce a few aspects of the collection that might not be so well known. It might be called the roll library, but it is worth noting that the collections extend far beyond the paper rolls – a couple of examples can be seen in the photos above. Alongside piano rolls from many manufacturers, we have: pinned barrels for organs, metal disc music, 200 wax cylinders, LPs, CDs, Cassettes, historic posters, magic lantern slides – the list goes on. Museum documentation for music rolls might be patchy, but for these other resources it is often non-existent. We hope to bring together what there is and ensure that the museum has a comprehensive database for its collections.


In any case, things are moving forward and we need all the help we can get. If anyone has any ideas they think would be helpful, or if anyone wants to get involved in what we are doing then please get in touch.

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