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AAA World Article

A Museum to Make Your Heart Sing

More than 500 years of history and 15,000-plus musical instruments await at the National Music Museum.

By Mike Whye

AAA World Article

National Music Museum exterior
Photo Courtesy of Tony Jones

Let the big cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco have their art institutes, history museums, and science and technology centers. Vermillion has all three—art, history, and science and technology—in one place: the National Music Museum (NMM), set in the former two-story Carnegie Library on the south side of the University of South Dakota campus.

Home to one of the largest collections of musical instruments in the world, the museum traces the history, artistry and science of musical instruments throughout the world. The first item that greets visitors in the museum’s lobby, however, has made more than a few visitors wonder if they’re in a music museum at all.

“Some people ask, ‘What’s a cannon doing in here?’” says Patricia Bornhofen, manager of communications for the NMM. She is referring to the 10-foot-long barrel-like object resting on a two-wheel cart like a piece of Civil War artillery. “And we tell them that it’s a Thai goblet drum.”

Move beyond the entry, though, and there’s less confusion about the purpose of the 22,000-square-foot museum that had its genesis in the private collection of South Dakota music instructor and band leader Arne B. Larson, who donated 2,500 musical instruments as the Shrine of Music in 1973 for the public to enjoy. The collection, which was renamed the National Music Museum in 2002, now contains about 15,000 instruments in its holdings, of which nearly 1,200 are displayed at any one time, says Bornhofen.

The instruments range from an ocarina made more than 1,000 years ago to an electric guitar owned by famed blues composer, musician and producer B.B. King. “Although we have some older instruments, most of our collection covers the last 500 years of musical instruments,” says Bornhofen, noting that those who made and used the instruments range from Adolph Sax to Elvis to Johnny Cash.    

The museum rotates instruments frequently between displays and storage to keep the exhibits interesting for repeat visitors. No one should expect to find dusty instruments in a hodgepodge of old display cases. Everything in the museum is laid out in brightly lit areas and in beautifully made glass and wood frame cases, many situated so that visitors can walk around them to see the instruments from all sides. The NMM has iPods that visitors can use for free; just tap in a code shown near an instrument to hear a recording of its sounds.

The museum also houses a 100-seat concert hall where musicians play instruments from the museum’s collections and nine galleries. About a dozen concerts are performed each year and, just as the musical instruments are from all eras, the concerts cover a wide variety of music. Some performances are free, while others require admission. 

Three galleries are near the concert hall on the main floor. The Lilllibridge Gallery features at least 40 American-made guitars, banjos and mandolins plus a re-creation of the Memphis workshop of three renowned guitar makers: John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto and Paul Gudelsky.

The Abell Gallery displays American and European keyboard instruments, including two 18th-century French and Portuguese grand pianos, among the earliest grand pianos known anywhere. Both feature wonderful paintings of landscapes and floral designs on their soundboards and side panels, providing beauty to the eye as well as the ear.

Grand Piano
A grand piano made by Anton Martin Thym in Vienna around 1815
Photo Courtesy of Mike Whye

About 60 stringed instruments and bows made by Italian craftsmen from 1540 to 1793 occupy the Rawlins Gallery. Among them are one of two surviving mandolins (the one made in 1680 still has its case) and one of five surviving guitars made by famed violinmaker Antonio Stradivari, whose other works here include the 1693 “Harrison” violin and a viola da gamba/cello, making this a stunning cross-section of Stradivari’s instruments.

Perhaps the oldest cello in existence is here, too: a mid-16th-century instrument made by Andrea Amati for French King Charles IX. “The ‘King cello’ is our Mona Lisa,” says Bornhofen. The back panel of the cello features a colorful painting of Justice in the form of a crowned woman holding a sword and a set of scales. On the sides in gold lettering are the Latin words for “pity” and “justice.”

Many more instruments are arranged in six galleries on the museum’s second floor. They include an array of fascinating instruments from around the world. The pitch of a “talking drum” from Nigeria, for example, can change when a user squeezes its body to change the tension on the drum head. There’s also a crocodile-shaped wooden zither decorated with brass, ivory pegs and colored glass that once entertained people in southern Burma in the 19th century. Finger cymbals from Tibet featuring engravings that spell out the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme (which has several meanings depending on the Buddhist sect) are among the smaller items in the museum. And from the Indonesian island of Java comes a gamelan, which is an ensemble of flutes, drums and stringed instruments, plus gongs, tuned tubes and bars made of brass.

room filled with instraments
A gamelan from the island of Java.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Whye

Instruments made while the Industrial Revolution swept across Europe include a glass armonica—a cluster of glass bowls that, when touched by moistened fingers as they spin around a common axle, produce delicate musical notes. A bombardon, a large brass instrument, delivered heavy bass notes before it was replaced by the tuba in the mid-19th century.

Among the American-made instruments are a Gibson bass guitar, an early solid-body electric guitar made by the legendary Les Paul, and guitars owned by Johnny Cash and June Carter. A silver heart-shaped trumpet made for the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and an electric theremin that created eerie music for horror films are also showcased here.

Native American drums made of rawhide and wood are near a red stone Dakota courting flute. A few display cases away are drums and brass instruments played by Civil War musicians. Pianos, reed organs, electric organs, mouth organs and many more instruments displayed in the hallways can easily occupy the attention of visitors for hours.

It’s practically impossible to take in all of NMM’s instruments on display in one visit, and that becomes part of the joy of visiting it every so often—to see and hear something new from the world of music. 

For more information about the National Music Museum, visit


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.

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