Imagine, standing near a 500-year-old grand piano. Perhaps, a Stradivarius violin. Don’t want to fight the crowds at a New York City metropolitan museum or a Smithsonian in Washington, DC? You don’t have to. Just take a drive to Vermillion, South Dakota.
What? Really? These are your thoughts right about now, eh? Situated on the campus of the University of South Dakota – farm fields and river valley surrounding the city of more than 10,000 people – the National Music Museum shares its collection of 15,000 unique instruments. Some of the pieces are more than five centuries old. The entire collection is not on display. Instruments are rotated. Our guess is that about 1,000 were on display during our visit.
The museum’s collection is displayed in several rooms of a two-floor exhibit. Musical instruments from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia are available for the public to view.
The National Music Museum opened in 1973. The initial exhibits came from South Dakota high school band director Arne B. Larson, who had collected about 2,500 instruments.
The stringed instrument collection was interesting. One violin dates to 1560. The youngest violin with the collection is from 1991. The room with the stringed instruments was impressive. I learned there are different sizes of violins. The instruments are displayed in interesting formats.
Violoncellos on display hail from the court of French King Charles IX. “The King,” as the instrument is referred as, has a painting on the back of it. It’s one of 38 such instruments built by Andrea Amati possibly as early as 1538, according to the museum. The painting was added for King Charles around 1560.
The keyboard collection offers visitors a fantastic walk through history. With pianos as old as the mid-1500s, we were impressed the collection. Temptation to touch the keyboard may have taunted us, but the sign saying “Do Not Touch” pretty much resolved that.
I’m a fan of brass instruments. I love the sound they make. The museum offers several instruments on display – trombones. Flugelhorns, bugles, cornets and trumpets, among them.
Woodwind instruments include flutes, clarinets, saxophones and bagpipes. To have centuries-old instruments of this ilk on display floors me at times. It truly amazes me that someone 200-500 years year ago played these instruments, some in front of famous royalty.
The National Music Museum doesn’t limit itself to music more than a century old. Modern music performers have items on display. Guitar great Les Paul has original instruments on exhibit. Other Gibson guitars are on display. Fender guitars join them in a great collection of guitars. I believe my brother Joe – an amazing guitar player – would be challenged not to want to break every case and take each guitar for a test play.
Pop music star Shawn Colvin – a Vermillion native – donated one of her guitars to the museum. The late BB King also has a guitar on display. Guitars from stars Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Steve Miller join the celebrity wing of guitars on exhibit.
I thought it was cute the museum includes an exhibit of homemade instruments. Palmer Roe of Canton, South Dakota, created instruments from items around his property. A homemade barrel cello was actually used during performances. He also created a stove pipe cello. They are among the unique instruments on display.
The National Music Museum houses some of the best instruments in the world. We highly recommend visiting the museum’s world-class collection. The $10 admission is a bargain for the history you’ll take in.
For more information on the National Music Museum in Vermillion, please visit www.nmmusd.org.