he Royal College of Music is, unsurprisingly, a noisy place. Even a stroll along Prince Consort Road towards the main entrance is to the sound of the practicing students inside, their pianos and opera bellows echoing through the windows and descending onto the sidewalk.
So it makes sense that the double-height atrium space in the heart of the college’s newly remodeled museum feels ready to host a performance at any time. A piano sits with its reel raised, inviting unattended, and above, mounted speakers patiently await the signal.
It’s all part of the plan. “The museum will not be a quiet and stuffy place but a space filled with music,” said Professor Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, the curator. “Our artifacts were made to be played and heard after all.” This will be done officially, with musicians from the RCM coming regularly and, if you are lucky, on an ad hoc basis: a curious guest during my visit asked for a demonstration of certain instruments from a member of the RCM staff passing through, which fortunately obliged.
Rognoni’s task of overseeing the museum’s relaunch – originally slated to reopen in the spring of 2021 after a Â£ 3.6million investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but stalled by the pandemic – was daunting, but undoubtedly fascinating. Some 15,000 pieces from the MRC’s designated collection were sifted through to find those that best represented these extraordinary archives.
And although the pieces on display in this modest-sized museum represent only a tiny fraction of what is preserved, the hand-picked selection is enchanting. The oldest guitar in the world, made by Belchior Dias in Lisbon in 1581, sits in front of a right clavichord, the oldest stringed keyboard instrument in existence. In a touch of conservation finesse, a beautifully ornate bell chisel, made by German manufacturer Joachim Tielke, is accompanied by an 18th century painting of an unknown aristocratic woman holding this very instrument.
Elsewhere, the Venetian harpsichord with an eye-catching Titian-inspired artwork on the underside of its lid is captivating; much like an original Mozart score (kept behind opaque glass and revealed at the touch of the button to help preserve it), with grouped notation giving a glimpse of the composer’s talent for improvising music alongside an orchestra, is remember everything, and later write it down note for note.
Upstairs, the temporary exhibit delves into the bohemian social circle of artists and musicians who lived in the Kensington area during the last quarter of the 1800s and into the 20th century, from Edward Burne-Jones to George Henschel. It’s a living collection of portraits – Felix Moscheles’ portrayal of George Henschel with his head tilted slightly but seriously forward stands out.
All in all, it’s an impressive redevelopment – ZMMA Architects have worked with the V&A and the Museum of the Home, among others, and clearly know what they’re doing – and it’s heightened by the emphasis on the community. A new space, the Weston Discovery Center, is ready for everyone from young children to dementia support groups to use, and it’s all part of a larger 40 million campus transformation. pounds sterling at the college, with a new public cafe and two performance spaces also included. The museum itself is free to enter.
If the sound of these practicing musicians wasn’t enough to woo you off the streets, then this new phase in college history certainly should.