Bate Collection, Oxford: Here you may play

A visit to Andrew Lamb, Curator

Interview: Ulrich Halder

Article first published in GLAREANA 2/2014 (translation)

The modest brick building, not far from the old center of Oxford, would be easily overlooked if there were not an information board in noble blue: University of Oxford, Faculty of Music, Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. But where is the entrance? We find it around the corner, down a staircase, finally a kind of cellar door with bell button. Andrew Lamb, curator of the Bate Collection, welcomes us personally: „Hello, welcome to the Bate! There is free admission, but pleeease do not touch the instruments!“ Our first impression: Not a museum according to modern standards, but rather a kind of depository with high showcases full of instruments, some harpsichords, big timpanis, and a theremin. My gaze soon falls on a corridor-long display case with estimated hundreds of flutes, clarinets, and oboes. Wow, what wealth! And all these instruments can be played?

This is what the statutes say: ‚The Bate Collection exists to demonstrate the history and development of musical instruments and to encourage and permit the use of the instruments of former times and other places.’ With these objectives the Bate Collection is quite an exception among the European museums and public collections. What about all the risks that old musical instruments are exposed to when still being played? It is true that historical stringed instruments – especially those of famous makers - are eagerly traded, rented and played, and centuries-old keyboard instruments, such as those of the Tagliavini collection in Bologna, are also regularly played. But what about woodwind instruments, which are exposed to completely different influences?

These are the kind of questions we would like to have answered by Andrew Lamb (picture left).

Ulrich Halder: Andy, you have been managing this unique collection for the last 12 years. How did that come about?

Andrew Lamb: Well, in the beginning there was the generous gift of Philip Bate, who had been collecting woodwind instruments since the 1930s, leaving them to the University of Oxford in 1963. Later, further collections were added as gifts or acquisitions, some of them from members of the Galpin Society. Bate was one of its founders. Today the collection counts approx. 2,000 instruments. Here we can show about half of them. The focus is on wood and brass instruments, including some highly precious examples as e.g. Bressan's Alto recorder of 1720 (picture right) - model for many contemporary copies -, or an oboe by Hendrik Richter of the same time period. Keyboards, string and plucked instruments are less represented, although there are some quite singular objects, e.g. the only surviving harpsichord by William Smith (c. 1720), which had probably been played by Handel. In 1985, the Bate Collection received a complete Javanese gamelan orchestra, which has since been regularly played by a Gamelan club especially formed for this purpose.

UH: This is my main question: According to the firm will of its founder, the instruments of the Bate Collection are to be played. The institution has been in existence for almost 50 years. What are your experiences with this unusual aim?

AL: Unusual? Musical instruments have always been made to produce sounds! So it seems rather unusual to me that in most museums, they just have to lie mutely in their glass cabinets. As a radio and TV producer, Philip Bate was all his life interested in communicating. He wanted to do this also with and through his instruments. Musicians, students and the public should be able to hear the music of earlier times on the instruments of earlier times. Also they should have the opportunity to experience this through their own playing. .

UH: Isn’t this objective extremely risky, not to say irresponsible with regard to the historical value of the instruments? Public museums - including the Bate Collection - are mandated to preserve their cultural treasures indefinitely for future generations. This I think is the main reason why museums usually ‘close down’ their objects so as to avoid unnecessary risks.

AL: Yes, this is actually a conflict. In earlier times the instruments of the Bate Collection were probably used in a too generous way. But that has changed in the last 15 years. Today, we are looking more closely for what purpose and to whom our instruments will be borrowed.

UH: Can you explain this in somewhat more detail?

AL: In 1997, Robert L. Barclay, a renowned Canadian musicologist, was commissioned to assess the situation of the Bate Collection and make recommendations. He proposed various structural changes, but emphasized a thorough and complete inventory of the instruments. According to him, this is the only way to objectively assess which instruments – and to which extent - can be used without seriously endangering their historical value.

UH: According to which criteria should the instruments be chosen?

AL: Each instrument must be assessed individually. This requires a high degree of professional knowledge and a most complete data collection. Barclay proposed a rating grid that defines three criteria, each with five levels: 'rarity' (from unique to replaceable), 'fragility' (high to low) and 'condition' (perfect to modified). Each level is scored with points. For example, in the criterion 'rarity' the level ‘unique’ gets 1 point, 'replaceable' 5 points. The scores in all three categories are added to give a total of min. 3 (unique instrument in perfect condition, but highly fragile) to max.18 points (replaceable, not very fragile and heavily modified instrument). On this basis, a quite objective decision in the way of use can be made: instruments with a low score will not be handed out or only at very restricted conditions, and vice versa. But as I already said: A correct classification requires precise knowledge and professional experience.

UH: That seems to be clear. But do you have similar objective criteria for evaluating the students and musicians who want to play the instruments? Should not also on their side knowledge and, above all, a high sense of responsibility be expected?

AL: Of course. That is why I always have a thorough discussion with the interested parties - especially if they are coming from outside and the instruments are supposed to leave the house. They have to explain the purpose of the loan and I soon see if there is enough expertise and reliability. I then inform them about the value and maintenance of the instrument, decide on the duration of the use and fix it all in a contract. We also demand a deposit fee to cover any possible repair costs.

UH: How often do you lend instruments and how are your experiences so far?

AL: On the average, 100 instruments per year are handed out or used in the house - without counting the frequent short presentations during guided tours. Harpsichords, Sax horns and violins are the most popular. What concerns the woodwinds, recorder and bassoon are the favorite instruments. In general, my experiences are very good. In the past 12 years since I’m in charge, I have probably given more than one thousand permissions. Only in one case did I have problems because of a badly handled instrument.

UH: That sounds very positive. What budget do you have for the repair and maintenance of the instruments?

AL: Only just £ 11,000 a year. This is sufficient for the care of the instruments used. It is certainly not for getting all the others, which would deserve it, in a really playable condition. But that is not necessary: ‘mute’ instruments also have their value. At least our 8’000 visitors seem to think that way.

UH: Andy, would you tell us a little bit about yourself?

AL: Well, I am 57 years old. In my youth I passionately played the French Horn. Finishing school without any higher degree, I joined the British army at the age of 15. For ten years, I served as an artillery corporal and ‘regimental trumpeter’. After several different jobs, I completed a 5-year apprenticeship as an instrument maker at the London College of Furniture. Out of interest in restoring old woodwind instruments, I worked at the Horniman Museum for two years. Finally I graduated with a Master's degree as a Conservator from the Royal College of Art. After working several years at different museums and as a freelance I became Curator of the Bate Collection in 2002. I hope to stay here for a while, because I love this job and am proud to be a successor to personalities like Philip Bate, Anthony Baines, Jeremy Montagu and Hélène La Rue.

UH: Do you have plans and wishes for the future?

AL: Of course! I would like to have the means to improve the maintenance of the collection and to bring more instruments into a playable condition. Furthermore, some showcases should get a better design. All this, however, requires appropriate staff, and that costs money. For easier tasks, I can count on interns and volunteers. This is very pleasing, but not enough. I am also planning additional events to make the museum more attractive to visitors, through regular public recitals on our instruments for example. Finally, I hope that more students of our faculty will be interested in playing the old instruments. For this purpose at least the Bate Collection was created!

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Philip Bate (1909 - 1999), founder of the Bate Collection, Oxford

Philip Bate was born in Glasgow. He was the son of an art historian and a music-loving mother and was also interested in music. But he decided to study natural sciences, especially geology and paleontology. At the University of Aberdeen, he was involved in theater performances and thus came into contact with the BBC. In 1934 he joined the BBC and until 1939 worked as a studio manager for music productions. After the Second World War, he was asked by the BBC to produce music for their new television service. He got an excellent reputation with his live transmissions of concerts and ballet performances. From 1956 to 1967, he finally became responsible for the BBC's internal training program.

Since his youth Philip Bate was interested in musical instruments. Especially fascinated by woodwinds, he regularly roamed flea markets and junk stores in search of interesting objects. Here he met colleagues with equal interests, such as the clergyman Francis William Galpin, with whom he had a lifelong friendship. It was Galpin who encouraged him to apply his knowledge of natural sciences to the study of the old musical instruments. He later acquired considerable craftsmanship, which enabled him to restore and copy historical woodwind and brass instruments.

In 1946 Philip Bate, together with his friends and colleagues, founded the Galpin Society for the Study of Musical Instruments, which he also chaired over the following years. During this time, Bate wrote numerous articles for the Galpin Society Journal and published some books on the history of the oboe, the trumpet and the flute. In 1968 the private collection of Philip Bate comprised already about 300 woodwind and brass instruments. He donated them to the University of Oxford on the condition that the instruments have to be cared for by a qualified curator and be available to interested musicians and students for study and practical use. In the following years additional objects and collections – many of them of great value - were added, so that the Bate Collection counts now about 2,000 objects. Highly honored, Philipp Bate died on November 3rd 1999.

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