Friday, March 22, 2013

Drink it in: the Guinness Collection of Instruments and Automata

Before the days of digital music players, compact discs, cassette tapes and even the phonograph, people were entertained by mechanical music makers in their own homes. And before television, many relied on automated toys for amusement. The nation’s largest collection of such machines – and one of the largest in the world – was assembled by brewing heir Murtogh Guinness, and it’s at the Morris Museum.

About 150 pieces of the 700 object collection is on view in a specially-constructed exhibit space, with the rest housed in a viewable storage area downstairs. Every afternoon, from Tuesday to Sunday, museum docents offer a history of mechanical music makers and automated toys, as well as a demonstration of a few of the museum’s pieces. I was fortunate to attend as Guinness’ former neighbor, Steve Ryder, explained the history of the collection and the technology behind it.

One of the many automata
in the Guinness collection.
Courtesy Morris Museum.
As we learned, the rudimentary principles of the classic music box were discovered centuries ago, but it took until the 1800s before they were produced in quantity. Jewelry and watch makers were among the first to make these smaller devices, given the delicate and exacting nature of the work. At first, Switzerland was the epicenter of the industry, but eventually Germany got into the mix, too.

I was tickled to learn that the mechanical music story has a New Jersey angle. As we learned several months ago from another Hidden New Jersey story, Garwood’s own Aeolian Company was a giant in the player piano trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Just a few miles away and around the same time, several music box companies settled in New Jersey. The U.S. government had placed a tariff on music boxes imported from Germany and Switzerland, and the companies got around it by shipping the musical components to the States and assembling them within boxes made here.

The Regina Company of Rahway, in particular, made a series of models for home use. As the phonograph gained in popularity, Regina adapted by creating a dual music box/record player. Ultimately the company gave up on musical devices, shifting its manufacturing might to vacuum cleaners.

Items in the Guinness collection range in size from large beer-hall orchestrons to tiny music boxes housed within a woman’s ring. Steve played two of the larger instruments for us, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think a small band was performing. In essence, it was, since the orchestrons hold drums, pipes, the guts of a piano and even violins. They’re simply amazing!

Impressive as the musical portion of the collection is, I couldn’t wait to see the automata. These are mechanical toys that entertain visually as the music boxes do aurally. Though the vast majority of the automata are too fragile to be demonstrated on a regular basis, museum visitors can watch brief videos showing how several of them work. Steve was kind enough to set two of them in motion, and even to these 21st century eyes, there’s still something very magical about them. I was especially taken with the clown whose head disappears, only to reappear beneath the box he lifts.

While you can visit specifically for the demonstration and lecture, there’s plenty to see and do at other times. Various stations around the exhibit space give you a chance to learn about the mechanics of the instruments, and even to do a little playing around yourself. It’s an especially nice touch for smaller children who may not have the patience for a history lesson.

Many thanks to Hidden New Jersey friend Andrea Marshall for alerting us about these amazing relics of musical, industrial and New Jersey history!

1 comment:

  1. One of the NYC metro region's best kept secrets - The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, is a "must see" (& be heard) Museum!
    And here are some museum-created Video links of a few Automata:
    Enjoy, and do try to visit in-person!


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