Volume 6 Number 11
November 8 - December 12 2010
In a gallery of the museum showcasing the collecting habits of Australia’s first internationally recognised composer and concert pianist, Percy Grainger, two clothes brushes have inscribed on them in neat, square, handwriting the Danish words, Mors Tid.
Meaning (from) mother’s time, Grainger wrote the words on many of his possessions, according to Grainger co-curator Astrid Krautschneider, effectively separating his life into periods ‘before’ and ‘after mother’.
If the visitor to the Grainger Museum explores the galleries in the order suggested by the curators, the brushes are encountered near the end of the journey, and are an affecting indicator of the depth of the bond that existed between the genius only son Percy, and his devoted but possibly over-attached mother Rose.
Another display tells the story of Rose’s suicide. She leapt to her death from Grainger’s manager’s New York City office window, driven, as she herself called it in her last letter to Percy, ‘insane’ by incorrect rumours of an incestuous relationship with her son, and presumably also by the effects of the syphilis she contracted from her husband John Harry Grainger (from whom she eventually separated).
The display shows the contents of her handbag, carefully preserved by Grainger from the day of her death, including handkerchiefs, calling cards, a toothbrush and comb, eyeglasses and pill boxes. In addition a long, thick plait of her hair is resting on its cardboard storage box labelled “beloved mother’s hair”. The case is hauntingly presented, with the palms and fingers of Rose’s white kid gloves reaching toward the visitor, in dim light for preservation purposes, all the items arranged against an abstract detail from a sepia photograph of Rose in her coffin.
Like the final exhibit in the museum – the contents of Grainger’s bedside cabinet from the time of his own death, featuring his dentures, handkerchiefs, jewellery, a homemade codpiece, and several sweat-stained bow ties from his performance apparel – inspection of the Grainger Museum is a very intimate experience. Sometimes discomfortingly so. How much do we really want to know about Grainger? One of the items mercifully not on display from the bedside drawers is his incontinence clamp.
Built on the campus of the University of Melbourne between1935 and 1939, and designed by the University’s architects Gawler and Drummond with input and funding from Grainger, the Museum is unique in Australia for its autobiographical nature, and one of only a handful of such museums in the world. Closed since 2003 after waterproofing problems were identified, the Museum was re-opened to the public this October, after a seven-year closure for conservation of the heritage building (overseen by Lovell Chen Heritage architects) and renewal of the exhibition galleries (with exhibition design by Lucy Bannyan, of Bannyan Wood Design).
The Museum is the result of Grainger’s desire to have his life – in its intensely personal entirety – documented, preserved and displayed, and it is this interaction between intimacy and intentional display which makes the museum so intriguing, and which has been so adroitly presented in the new exhibition design and choice of items on display. A more selective approach by Grainger to the information and items he was prepared to leave behind about his life would have made the museum a ‘quite interesting’ account of the life of an internationally acclaimed musician and composer, rather than the rich investigation of an unusual and somewhat extreme psyche: a “warts and all” account of the man and his passions, according to co-curator Brian Allison.
In fact Grainger – a devotee of the Nordic race and his perceptions of its influence on Western culture – eschewed in his vocabulary words of Latin or Greek derivation – and used the Anglo-Saxon-derived term ‘hoard-house’ rather than ‘museum’, Ms Krautschneider explains. The Museum and the Collection are certainly that, with hardly anything the Graingers owned discarded during his life, from the most everyday items to the exotic and sometimes shocking.
“It is no great secret that Grainger was a sado-masochist and the challenge to curators was to present the material that he himself called his ‘lust branch’ authentically, without sensationalising it, but trying not to over-censor it,” Mr Allison says.
“Grainger himself emphasised that his sexuality was inextricably linked with his creativity in music, the passions and energies released in one informed the other. Certainly some items in the Collection relating to flagellation are confronting, although by modern standards his collection of pornography is mild: erotica rather than pornography. We chose not to display a blood soaked shirt of his that is in the collection but his collection of whips can be viewed, and although he sealed the lust branch and directed it not be opened until 10 years after his death (probably out of sensitivity to his wife Ella and her daughter and other colleagues he had predeceased) he certainly intended it to be a part of the public story of his life. He hoped for a society that would be more permissive 10 years after his death. ”
From an academic perspective however, it is the collection behind the Museum that is its real treasure trove – an invaluable resource for scholars and researchers.
The items on display in the new Museum represent only a small selection of the Grainger Collection, which runs to over 100,000 items, including a substantial archive which includes 50,000 items of correspondence, and other items belonging to composers he admired such as Grieg and Delius, photographs by and of him and his circle, musical scores and manuscripts, concert programs, tickets, diaries and notebooks, art by Grainger and art that he and his family collected, treatises on musicology and his views on free music, designs for electronic and experimental musical instruments and their prototypes, sketches and designs for clothing, and notebooks containing his views on diet, health, race, history and tradition.
In addition, with the use of an Edison phonograph, Grainger collected field recordings of folksongs from English and Nordic cultures that were rapidly being lost, which remains a significant anthropological resource.
One of the displays builds a picture of Grainger’s approach to collecting and then arranging folk music, showing the development of the traditional folk song Brigg Fair, from the very basic notation on manuscript with the lyrics scrawled long hand in an exercise book, through to the proof of a printed score annotated in Grainger’s hand ready for print production.
“We also have dedicated a significant part of the museum to what Grainger called his ‘Free Music’ experimentation,” says Mr Allison. “These were sound-making contraptions made from bits and pieces of other instruments and all sorts of detritus, adapted with simple electrical componentry, often held together by bits of string.”
“For many years Grainger had been exploring music outside of western traditions, freeing music from increments of pitch and rhythm, creating what he referred to as ‘gliding tones’. He was effectively anticipating developments in synthesised and modern electronic music.”
His baby shoes, childhood practice piano, Meissen figurines, china rabbits and a tiny mouse figurine with conductor’s baton raised aloft are all a part of the detailed fabric that tells Grainger’s story: “the formation of my intellectual life and creative identity”.
According to Mr Allison, “Grainger emphasised the creative side of music rather than what he called the executive side (ie performance), and used his own personal story to explain creativity in music. This is why the Collection includes not only the manuscripts and published editions of his music, but also the unconventional instruments he used in some of his pioneering compositions.”
Within the Grainger Collection and archive is material enough to occupy historians and musicologists for many years to come, and to facilitate academic enquiry from diverse fields.
Speaking at the recent Museums Australia conference, the University of Melbourne’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (University Affairs) Professor Warren Bebbington, outlined the University’s commitment to maintaining its cultural riches, and to sharing them with the public, mentioning that as a student of the Conservatorium in the 1970s the then Vice-Director told students that most of the Grainger Collection was ‘old junk that should be thrown in the tip’.
“This for a collection containing letters of Grieg, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Delius, not to mention the manuscripts of Australia’s most internationally famous composer,” Professor Bebbington said. “The University was host to the most important musical site in Australia, one of the last great unexplored musical collections of the world, yet seemed to regard it as no more than an idiosyncratic nuisance.”
And indeed according to Professor Bebbington it is only since the 1990s that Australian universities have really taken seriously the responsibility to look after the cultural treasures in their care.
“In the museum adventure, universities generally are ‘fellow travellers’ – organisations that own collections, but not as their core business,” he said. “They are not insignificant travellers in the journey of course: the two Cinderella Collections reports commissioned by the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee in 1996 and 1998 identified over 250 university museums and collections in Australia, concluding that a substantial portion of Australia’s distributed cultural collection is located in universities.
“If Melbourne’s case is anything to go by, however, this number of 250 collections was a significant underestimation – Cinderella Collections identified 16 collections at the University of Melbourne in 1996 but we now know that we have more than 30.”
Of course not every collection can have its own purpose-built museum building, but the potential for the use of museums and their associated collections in undergraduate teaching, and for outreach between the public and the University as a major public institution, is clearly demonstrated by the new, improved, Grainger Museum.
The Grainger Museum is open Tuesday to Friday 1pm – 4.30pm, Sunday 1pm – 4.30pm. Closed Monday and Saturday, public holidays and Christmas through January.
It will be one of the many museums and collections open to the public on the forthcoming Cultural Treasures Day, Sunday 14 November. More: