Teaching and Learning in the Musical Instrument Collection at St Cecilia’s Hall

Photo Credit: Neil Hanna 19 Riselaw Crescent Edinburgh, Copyright University of Edinburgh Image Bank

In this post, Dr Jenny Nex, Curator of the Musical Instruments Collections at St Cecilia’s Hall, provides a detailed account of the learning and teaching activities that take place in Scotland’s oldest concert hall…

In the musical instrument collection, we have many different ways of engaging with learning and teaching. The galleries are laid out with the idea that as well as enjoying themselves, visitors to the museum can learn by looking at the objects and displays, reading our labels, and using the App to find more information and hear sound clips of over 90 of the instruments. The Discovery Drawers in the Wolfson Gallery enable people to have some hands-on fun with buttons to press and other things to explore.

We have many groups visiting us, for tours and hands-on sessions. Some are led by the Curatorial team for detailed guided tours of the Collection and some by the Museums Services team for family activities.  Schools come from Edinburgh, the wider UK (we have a school from York coming soon) and abroad. Mid-March seems to be a time when Danish schools do trips – we have four booked in the same week so far. Specialist groups come from as far afield as Italy, the US and Glasgow, particularly those who are studying historically-informed performance.

Formal teaching in the University includes single classes for lecturers who want to include musical instruments as part of their course. We also have an honours option, Music and its Instruments, which can be taken by 3rd and 4th year undergraduates. This is object-based, and encourages students to develop observational and analytical skills whilst enjoying hands-on sessions with the instruments. We currently have four PhD students working with the collection and our staff on projects relating to contrabass clarinets, guitars with miniature piano mechanisms built in to them, 18th-century German keyboard instruments and their music, and the woods used by guitar makers and their sustainability.

We are part of the wider University’s internship programme and enjoy working with a wide range of people who help us with collections management, conservation, marketing and a range of different museum-based activities whilst developing their own skills and experiences. We also have a great team of gallery invigilators who look after drop-in visitors and answer their questions while we are open to the public.

Informal learning happens at many concerts and events held in the Museum. The fantastic performers who come here often offer insights into their instruments and musical choices whilst sharing their love and enthusiasm, which can be highly infectious. Individuals come from as far afield as Japan and Australia for the chance to play our unique collection of keyboard instruments as this informs their own playing and develops their insights as a musician.

And, of course, we all learn from our visitors, each of whom has a unique story to tell and their own individual ways of engaging with musical instruments and the historic building in which we are based.

Jenny Nex

Following her early education in Cambridge, Jenny studied music at the University of Edinburgh from where she went on to specialise as a singer in historical performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She gained her MA in Museum and Gallery Management from City University in 1997 and in August 2005 took over as Curator of the Museum at the Royal College of Music. In 2013, she moved to a similar role in the Musical Instrument Museums Edinburgh based at St Cecilia’s Hall.  Jenny continues to sing whenever possible, and works regularly with guitarist Stephen Morrison on 19th- and 20th-century repertoire.

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