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Digitising the Royal College of Music Museum

Changes are afoot for the RCM Museum. Find out about its latest project to create a presence on Google’s Cultural Institute...

In a world where digital is seen as the future for almost everything, it can be a challenge for museums – traditionally the guardians of the past – to know how to make the most of the opportunities the online world offers. There has been a lot of talk about ‘digital museums’, with many advocating that screens are the walls of the future. Various experiments and trials have achieved mixed success. So can Google’s new Cultural Institute platform live up to the hype and be the breakthrough we are all waiting for?

Google Cultural Institute – originally launched as the Google Art Project in 2011 with just 17 museums involved – today has more than 300 partners in around 44 countries. The Royal College of Music is very proud of the fact it is the first conservatoire in the world to be featured on the online platform. As of November last year, items from the RCM’s internationally renowned collection of musical instruments and portraits sit alongside collections from other world-leading arts institutions including the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, The Metropolitan Opera and Musée d’Orsay.

‘It is tremendously exciting to work with Google to enable so many people to connect with these beautiful and fascinating objects in a myriad of new ways,’ says Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, Curator of the Royal College of Music Museum. ‘We are delighted that thanks to the wonders of modern technology there are so many more ways for people to explore our treasures.’

Through a series of carefully curated online exhibitions you can view and hear a selection of the RCM’s most valuable pieces. One exceptional highlight is a close-up view of the RCM’s most prized object – a clavicytherium – which at more than 540 years old is the earliest surviving stringed keyboard instrument in the world. It may no longer be playable but the interactive display allows you to listen to a replica made in the 1970s to experience how it may once have sounded.

You can also enjoy the novelty of listening to the strange sound of the Pochette, a type of string instrument used by dance masters in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. These little instruments were transported in specially designed coat pockets (‘poche’ in French), hence their name. Or if you’re just interested in perusing a few of the many greats who have passed through the doors of the RCM, take the tour of the ‘Royal College of Music Composers’ exhibit – from Stanford to Howells, it is a fascinating snapshot of the RCM’s remarkable history.

‘Working on this project has been incredibly rewarding,’ comments the Museum’s Digitisation Officer Richard Martin. ‘What I love most is the fact you can zoom in and see every brushstroke of a painting, or every detail of an instrument. Uniting objects with recordings creates a really fulfilling interactive experience, and shows just how far technology has come. It makes me very excited for what the future holds.’

In addition to getting up close and personal with the RCM’s collections, the platform also offers Museum View, a tool that grants access to the main spaces and corridors of the RCM (an extension of Google’s Street View). By standing virtually in the magnificent Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, not only can you pretend to be performing on that great stage but also explore the portraits of some of the RCM’s most illustrious alumni and Directors which decorate the walls.

This partnership with Google comes at an opportune moment for the RCM as the physical museum is undergoing a transformative redevelopment, with a planned reopening in 2019. The three-year project to create a new museum is supported by a £3.6m Heritage Lottery Fund grant which will enable new displays and a performance space for the RCM’s collection of historic instruments.

So although these treasures have been carefully packed away in storage for a few years, they still live on in the digital world. And now they can be enjoyed by an even larger audience no matter where they are or what time of day it is – whether they are in London, New York or Beijing. When the Museum does reopen in a few years’ time the divide between the physical and the digital world will be much smaller than before, with more ways than ever to enjoy, listen to and appreciate the RCM collections.

Written by Katherine Smith, RCM Marketing Manager


Google Streetview

Image credits: Royal College of Music

To visit the Royal College of Music's of virtual exhibitions featuring items from their Collections, visit Google Cultural Institute. 

To take a virtual tour of the Royal College of Music and wander through the corridors and performance space, click here.