Singing Our Praises | History | Smithsonian

Singing Our Praises

With creativity and a vast collection, the Smithsonian has become a leader in preserving our musical heritage

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Recently I came across a vintage photograph that reminded me of the Smithsonian's long association with music--an interest that goes back to the mid-19th century when the Institution started collecting guitars and brass instruments. This particular photograph, from 1916, depicts Frances Densmore, a Smithsonian anthropologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology, and Mountain Chief, a Blackfoot Indian, sitting in front of the Castle with an early Edison machine. In the course of 50 years, Densmore traveled to remote reservations and villages recording the songs of some 30 Indian tribes on wax cylinders and collecting hundreds of musical instruments.

Today we are still recording music and collecting its associated objects and documentation. The most visible form of this activity is the Folklife Festival, which has been held on the Mall every year since 1967 and has highlighted hundreds of performing groups from our nation's diverse communities as well as from around the world. Recordings of these groups and others are conserved and sold under the Smithsonian Folkways label. In addition, the Archives Center in the National Museum of American History (NMAH) contains rich documentation of American music. The museum has a vast keyboard and string instruments collection, including 180 pianos from 1770 to the present, five Stradivarii and outstanding examples of harmonicas, Appalachian dulcimers, banjos and guitars.

Merely displaying historic instruments and original scores in glass cases or preserving them in archives would be a deadly enterprise, so we have consciously tried to bring our collections alive. Many performances of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society presented over the past 18 years have involved the use of instruments from the NMAH collection; in fact, we are acknowledged leaders in the movement to perform on original instruments. Now in its seventh season, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, founded with a congressional appropriation in recognition of the importance of jazz in American culture, draws on the Museum's History of Jazz Collection and its Duke Ellington Collection to recreate classic jazz performances. These concerts are immensely popular, and our audiences have grown steadily.

Other musical endeavors of which we are duly proud include our award-winning radio productions, tapes and CDs. Two of our Smithsonian recordings have won Grammy awards in the past, and The Anthology of American Folk Music received two nominations this year. The Sackler and Freer galleries sponsor musical events that artfully combine Western and Asian music, both traditional and contemporary, and the George Heye Center in New York features talented Native American musicians and dancers. The Smithsonian Associates program offers the public a variety of musical programs in connection with exhibitions and research. Recently young as well as older audiences flocked to American History's series on the electric guitar.

Music in recent years has proven to be a rallying point, capable of pulling together many of our enormously broad resources in new ways. We have seen this largely as a result of seminal support from two corporations and one foundation. In 1992 we received $7.5 million from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund to be spent on various jazz-related projects over a ten-year period. Major sponsorships from Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A. and Discover Card followed, enabling the Institution to create an unprecedented outpouring of exhibitions, symposia, public programs, recordings, radio productions, CDs, scholarly resources and curriculum materials that will continue into the future.

It is difficult to do justice in such a short space to all of the musical projects at the Institution. The jazz exhibitions are noteworthy because they are all being toured by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) to cities across the country. SITES also tours exhibitions of gospel, folk music and American musicals.

What does the future hold? For starters, we are trying to duplicate the model we have established in jazz for the full gamut of Latino music. NMAH is planning an exhibition and performance to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the invention of the piano. The museum is also forging new partnerships with universities and music schools to increase outreach to students. In May we mark the 50th anniversary of Folkways with a Carnegie Hall concert.

Although our plans are ambitious, the enthusiasm of our staff is extremely high. As one of them said to me recently, "the ear has no boundaries." Music has provided us with special windows on cultures all over the world throughout our history. Now it promises exciting new audiences.

By Secretary I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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