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Preserving our musical heritage

Learning about and caring for the University’s historic musical instrument collection provided fine art alumna and conservation intern, Harriet Braine with an invaluable six weeks.

Harriet Braine

With a designer as a mother and a keen amateur artist as a grandmother, art and creativity runs in the family. It was therefore no surprise when Harriet Braine decided to pursue a 5 year MA in fine art at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA).

Attracted by the continuity of the experience; you spend the full 5 years with the same students and teachers, and the composition of the course; 50% History of Art and 50% practical art, she graduated in 2014.

Breadth of experience

Harriet is now studying for a Preventive Conservation Masters at Northumbria University; a course which covers a variety of conservation matters and is not exclusively limited to art. Keen to avoid specialising too early in her career, Harriet leapt at the opportunity to work with Edinburgh’s historic musical instrument collection as part of a six week internship run through the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) and based at the Main Library.

Tricks of the trade

Working 4 days a week at the CRC, Harriet has been able to work on a variety of different instruments, including an oboe which is rumoured to have been played by Mozart during his tour of the UK.

Many of the skills Harriet has learnt can be applied to other kinds of collection materials but others are very instrument-specific including how to make frets from gut for 17th century string instruments and techniques to ensure valuable materials are not wasted.

When I put strings on a baroque guitar, the strings which have been made (by Gamut, an early music string maker) have a few extra inches that are not needed. These few inches can then be used to make frets.

Harriet Braine

Pioneers in thought and deed

The University of Edinburgh is at the forefront of pioneering new techniques for the conservation of instruments. One of these is the use of electrolysis in removing tarnish from instruments. It is however a fine line to walk. On one hand instruments are made to be played but determining when an object goes from being something which should be used, to becoming a museum piece is challenging.

Exposure to the latest innovations and current conservation thinking is one of the reasons why the internship has been invaluable to Harriet as she continues with her course and considers her future career. Keen to stay in the museum sector, she is currently considering another internship to broaden her experience further. Her current ambition? To conserve an entire unchanged space or room.

A new home

St Cecilia’s Hall is home to the collections of early keyboard and plucked strings, part of Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, which ranks among the world's most important collections of musical heritage. The sister collection is currently on display and in store at the Reid Concert Hall Museum of Instruments. As part of the redevelopment of the Hall the two collections will be brought together as one, creating a single visitor destination at St Cecilia’s Hall.

Find out more about the Saint Cecilia’s Redevelopment Project

Related links

Musical Instruments Museums Edinburgh

Edinburgh College of Art