Music is the loser in this V&A gallery shake-up

Classical music in the capital is riding high just now. Musical standards among London orchestras and ensembles are arguably higher than ever. And with ticket sales largely bucking recession trends, widespread fears that concert culture would collapse together with an ailing record industry have proved misplaced.

Meanwhile, best-selling books by psychologists such as Oliver Sacks and neuroscientists such as Daniel Levitin seek to ask why our brains and bodies have always found music's abstract play of pitch and rhythm so deeply expressive of our common humanity.

Yet when it comes to the instruments that have allowed musical culture to flourish down the centuries, the outlook is less rosy: the gallery of musical instruments at the V&A Museum looks certain to close next month in order to make way for an expanded display of the museum's fashion and costume holdings.

While a number of the instruments will remain exhibited as part of other sections — such as the Venetian virginals owned by Elizabeth I which now stand in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries — most of them will be placed in storage, available on request, or distributed among other museums and collections.

Unlike Brussels, Paris and New York, where national instrument collections are displayed centrally, London's rich store of instruments is distributed among several smaller collections. The V&A's collection, of international significance purely by itself, gains in importance in this respect because it is the only collection of historical musical instruments to be housed in a major national museum, thereby attracting general as well as specialist visitors.

Besides the virgin queen's sole surviving keyboard instrument — Elizabeth I was a keen amateur musician as well as an active patron of the art — the jewels in the collection include an ivory oboe and tortoiseshell recorder that belonged to the composer Gioachino Rossini and two pianos owned by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, both lovingly decorated by the artist himself.

One of the collection's greatest assets is its visual attractiveness. The V&A was founded as and remains primarily a museum of decorative arts and its musical instrument collection developed around pieces striking for aesthetic as well as historical reasons. As most people visit museums seeking instruction and entertainment for the eye, the collection has for years played a unique role, by appealing first to the eye and then opening an imaginative window on past musical worlds.

There is some good news in the discovery that a proportion of the collection will go to south London's Horniman museum, whose already excellent musical instrument collection will be enriched by the loan. But despite its national status and its considerable charms, the Horniman remains somewhat off the beaten track of London's major visitor attractions.

Music is our common heritage, the oldest and perhaps most deeply engrained form of human culture. The prime physical embodiment of this culture remains the musical instruments which come down to us.

While I understand the V&A's need to keep its focus on its core collections, the decision to close the musical instrument gallery is a mistake. It will deprive many an accidental tourist of past music's rich rewards. Surely our musical heritage deserves better than this.

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