Keeping the Song Alive in Mechanical Music Collections of New York and New Jersey

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Jeremy William Witten
Joan E Greer

Abstract

Music boxes, musical clocks, nickelodeons and similar objects are commonly referred to as mechanical music or musical automata. New York and New Jersey have rich histories of manufacturing and archiving these objects. Often enclosed in display cases, curatorial attention has not always been paid to the music historically central to these objects. Therefore, this study examined how museums connect the materiality of these objects with their associated music. By synthesizing perspectives from museum studies, music history, and the history of design, five collections of musical automata in New York and New Jersey were examined: The Buffalo History Museum, The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, The Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum and the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Specifically, this project explored how musical automata produced between 1770 and 1930 have been archived, displayed and interpreted. By interviewing curators and analyzing museum collections, it ultimately appears that the curatorial strategies for mechanical music objects in New York and New Jersey are greatly varied. Additionally, a correlation was found between the proportion of a museum’s collection dedicated to mechanical music and how interactive it is for the public.

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Social Sciences & Humanities