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history

Since 11 January 1992 the Musical Instruments Museum (now known as the 'mim') has been part of the Royal Museums of Art and History as Department IV. By royal decree, the State has recognised the scientific character of its activities and provided it with two sections: firstly, the early music section and secondly, the section of modern music (19th and 20th centuries), and popular and traditional music.

But the original creation of the Brussels Musical Instruments Museum dates from 1 February 1877, when it was attached to the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory with the didactic purpose of showing early instruments to the students.


François-Joseph Fétis

At the very beginning of the Brussels Musical Instruments Museum's creation two collections of instruments were joined together.

One belonged to the celebrated Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871), was bought by the Belgian government in 1872 and put on deposit in the Conservatory where Fétis was the first director. The other was offered to King Leopold II in 1876 by the Rajah Sourindro Mohun Tagore (1840-1914) and comprises about a hundred Indian instruments.

Raja Sourindro Tagore
Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore
Victor-Charles Mahillon
Victor-Charles Mahillon

With these two original collections, the mim was already remarkably rich for its time. But its first curator, Victor-Charles Mahillon (1841-1924) was considerably to augment its collections, thus placing it among the finest in the world.

At his death in 1924, the mim counted some 3666 articles, among which 3177 were original musical instruments. A collector and maker of wind instruments and a noted acoustics expert, Mahillon performed his job with an enthusiasm, competence and dynamism that exceeded any of the expectations that his purely honorary title might have aroused.

Thanks to his activity and connections, the museum rapidly gained international fame, not only for the quantitative importance of its collections but also for their diversity, and for the quality and rarity of the items brought together.

 

In addition, between 1880 and 1922 Mahillon described the collections of the museum in a monumental five-volume catalogue. The catalogue also includes the four versions of his "Essay on the methodical classification of all instruments, ancient and modern" that was to serve as the basis for the classifications of E.M. von Hornbostel and C. Sachs which are still used today. This classification of musical instruments entitled him to be considered as one of the pioneers of organology, the science of musical instruments.

Beginning in 1877, Mahillon created a restoration workshop in the mim where he employed and trained a worker, Franz de Vestibule, to restore damaged articles, and also to make copies of instruments from other public collections of which no original examples existed in Brussels.

In the 1880s historical concerts on early instruments or copies were organised by François-Auguste Gevaert, who succeeded Fétis at the head of the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory. Performed by Conservatory professors and students, these concerts were a great success in Brussels and London at the end of the 19th century.

concert met kopie van antieke kithara
copy of an ancient Greek kithara
César SnoeckCésar Snoeck

Through astute judgment, Mahillon obtained large augmentations of the collections by calling on philanthropists, by mixing with erudite amateurs who sometimes became generous donors (e.g. César Snoeck), and through friendly relations with Belgian diplomats in foreign posts such as Jules Van Aalst at Canton (China) and Dorenberg at Puebla (Mexico), who brought back several instruments from beyond Europe.

It was thus that Mahillon received or purchased isolated pieces of great historical and organological value, but also homogeneous ensembles whose interest today is considerable. Mahillon followed all the large public sales of musical instruments and bought the pieces he needed to complete the ideal collection he was determined to build at the mim.

 

The growth of the collection slowed sharply after Mahillon's death in 1924. His successor, Ernest Closson (1870-1950) was nonetheless motivated by the same scientific curiosity regarding musical instruments. He edited several articles on Belgian makers for the National Biography and devoted a long monograph to "La facture des instruments de musique en Belgique" which appeared on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition held at Brussels in 1935. Besides organological information, statistics show the volume of Belgian instrument exports in the mid-19th century and highlight (alas!) the reversal of trends in the 1920s and 1930s, namely the disappearance of most of the instrument builders in our regions.

With the arrival of Roger Bragard (1903-1985), curator from 1957 to 1968, the situation improved considerably. This eminent Latinist, drawn to musicology by his persistent interest for ancient treatises relating to music, was able to attract the attention of the Minister of Culture at the time and particularly of Miss Sara Huysmans: budgets were considerably augmented, the exhibition rooms were renovated, guides and scientific personnel were hired, and concerts of early music on original instruments or copies were organised. Once again rare pieces could be acquired for the collections. Bragard's efforts were continued by René de Maeyer (from 1968 to 1989), who hired about ten scientific collaborators, each specialised in a different field of organology. Nicolas Meeùs assumed the interim from 1989 to 1994: he launched the project for moving to Old England. Under Malou Haine, this project has been realised. Currently, Alexandra De Poorter is acting General Director of the Royal Museums of Art and History, a group of museums to which the mim belongs.

Ernest Closson
Ernest Closson
Herman Closson
Herman Closson
René Lyr
René Lyr
Roger Bragard
Roger Bragard
René de Maeyer
René de Maeyer
Malou Haine
Malou Haine