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The collection as an agent. Collections and Collectors in 20th-Century Musicology


Julia Kursell

Members of the research group

prof.dr. J.J.E. Kursell
dr. W. v.d. Meer
dr. A.H. van Oostrum
M.A. Scholten MA

Cooperation partners:

(national) Universiteitsbibliotheek UvA; Bijzondere Collecties UB UvA; Stichting Film en Wetenschap; Instituut Beeld en Geluid, Hilversum; Gemeentemuseum Den Haag; Leiden University Library; Royal Tropical Institute; Leiden Museum for Ethnology. (international) Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin; Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv; Vienna Phonogramm Archiv; SOAS London, UK; UCLA Los Angeles, USA; Museum Nasional, Djakarta.

Description of the research programme of the research group

This research group focuses on the musicological collection as an entity in its own right. As this holds for many other disciplines, collections have been essential in founding the academic discipline of musicology, particularly in the history of this discipline in the Netherlands. Happily, collections of three types have survived up until today, all of unique value: collections of musical instruments (e.g. D.F. Scheurleer, J. Kunst), manuscript and printed sources (Scheurleer), and phonographic recordings (Kunst, Bake, Snouck Hurgronje).
The group aims at investigating three related claims, concerning the collections’s potential of storing future research questions, the collection as a body that carries itself the marks of history, and, more specifically focussing on the epistemic potential of musical collections, the supplementary relation among collections of different types and objects.

1) Collections store answers to questions of the future:

Assembling objects of a specific materiality, collections can change their meaning to both the collector and a general public over time. Asking about the agency of the collection, we assume that not only the material objects in themselves conceal the potential to respond to research questions of the past, present and future, but that this specific potential also should be sought for in the collection as a manifold, thus expanding the epistemological potential of the material object to the collection itself.

2) Collections assemble histories of their use:

In order to access the epistemic potential of collections, collectors and researchers have designed tools to organize collected objects. Basic archival operations of granting preservation, reiterated access and comparison among the objects, however, the organization of musical collectibles poses specific problems: repeated access threatens the objects, therefore the collections to some extent already bear the traces of their histories of endangerment. Our project will look at these histories, while at the same time reflecting on strategies for future preservation and access.

3) Musical collections mutually supplement each other:

The musicological collections we want to deal with display a constellation of media that complement each other. We therefore claim that the collections form a coherence that deserves special attention. This aspect relates concerns of the history and epistemology of musical investigation to the question of how to make the collections accessible to a wider public. From the beginning of the 20th century, musicologists have not only been considering the question of how to work with the collected objects, but how to make them fruitful for the public. A collection of instruments in a museum will present visual objects while it is meant to document a history of sound and music.

Envisaged results

An NWO free competition application is in the stage of planning. It foresees one postdoctoral and two predoctoral positions, resulting in one monograph (van Oostrum, on Snouck Hurgronje) and two dissertations. A kick-off workshop, discussing the epistemological potential of musical collections and their objects, drawing on concepts from B. Latour and M. Serres, and a closing conference are planned and shall result in submitting one collective volume and one thematic journal issue. In addition, the publication of historical recordings on CD and online is in preparation, as well as an exhibition.

Work plan and time schedule

The application is planned for 2013, spanning 2013-2016 (manuscripts of the monograph, dissertations and one collected volume expected for 2016).

Societal relevance

This research concerns an important cultural heritage of the Netherlands. It is related to general trends in the research on the formation of collections, notably the priority area of the University of Amsterdam, Cultural Heritage and Identity, and the theme Cultural and Societal Dynamics of NWO. The project reflects scientific, and thereby also societal, responsibilities towards exemplary collections.
and will collaborate with research groups at UvA, such as Auditory Memory, History of Humanities, and Digital Humanities. We foresee also collaboration with the “Virtual Laboratory” (see “Historical Epistemology, 1850-2000”) and other digital initiatives at UvA.