It’s one of Manchester’s most amazing hidden gems – a museum packed with musical collectables and curiosities dating back as far as 500 years. But given it’s basement location, and the fact that it’s only usually open for two hours a week, its little surprise that few people have ever visited this secret Manchester collection.

Located in the basement of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), the RNCM Collection of Historic Musical Instruments is one of  Manchester’s most marvellous secrets and we were lucky enough to enjoy a tour of the incredible artefacts and curiosities with Archive and Museum Manager, Heather Roberts, earlier this week.

Heather told us that the museum is an international musical journey through the best of the Italian Renaissance and English Victorian periods, adding: ‘The instruments and memorabilia we have hidden underneath the college are astounding. I am so excited to share these special stories. I can’t wait to share how much beautiful music making is in Manchester’s heritage.’

The museum is currently open from 12-1pm on Mondays and Thursdays ahead of the RNCM’s Lunchtimes concerts (term time only), when admission to the collection is free (no concert ticket purchase required). Click here for more information about the lunchtime concert series.

In addition, as part of National Lottery Open Week, groups of up to four people with proof of purchase of a National Lottery game can visit the museum free of charge on Monday 11 March and Wednesday 13 March, from 1.30-4.30pm (date of lottery draw or ticket purchase is not relevant).

Visitors on National Lottery Open Week will also receive a free notebook and be treated to a special soundtrack of historic performances by RNCM alumni.

The RNCM Collection of Historic Musical Instruments is one of 13 special sites around Manchester and Salford that form the Hidden Network: small but spectacular museums, libraries, and historic buildings housing rare collections, displays, exhibitions, and events.

Here are our top 5 finds from our recent tour …

1. Virginal: an ancient ancestor of the piano 

The oldest item in the collection is a 15th-century ‘great-grandfather to the piano’ called a virginal. Its a really beautiful, wooden creation. A word of warning – while it’s very tempting to touch, visitors are unable to play the instruments on display as most of them have not been renovated for live performance. This is something the RNCM hopes to explore in the future, if funding allows.

2. Stradivarius violin dating back over 400 years – and worth over £1m

Among the most valuable items is a Stradivari violin piccolo from 1685 – one of an estimated 650 surviving pieces that the great Antonio Stradivari made, and which first came to Manchester in 1883. Heather told us that this violin is sometimes loaned out to musicians, such as those playing with Manchester’s Halle orchestra when there is a piece being performed which it was designed for. Examples include Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos.

3. Tibetan trumpet made from a human thigh bone

Yes, you are reading this right. The collection includes hundreds of instruments from all over the world, from African gunibris and Japanese drums to Indian sitars, Chinese fiddles and French pochettes (pocket fiddles)…. and a Tibetan human bone trumpet.

4. A lock of the composer Mendelssohn’s hair entwined with gold thread

Before we developed the technology of photography, humans have long wanted to remember people after they have passed or when they are not together, and they did this often by keeping a ‘piece’ of the person with them – a fragment of their clothing or a piece of their hair, a bit like a relic. As well as Mendelssohn’s gold-threaded hair, the museum also contains what is said to be a fragment of Beethoven’s shroud

5. Miniature violin made in Manchester in 1901 to perfect scale (including spare bow strings)

The museum is absolutely packed with delights and this tiny violin is no exception. We also loved the ornate Swiss music box with hummingbird and butterfly bell hammers, a Buccin bass trombone with a Tim Burton- esque dragonhead, and a cast of the left hand of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.

Collection of Historic Musical Instruments,
Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), 124 Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9RD
, Tel: 0161 907 5200, Mon & Thu, 12-1pm
Ruth Allan
Published on:
Mon 4 Mar 2024