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“Wildlife photograph” 5 of 5 stars
Review of Museum of Music (HMB)

Museum of Music (HMB)
Im Lohnhof 9, Basel, Switzerland (Altstadt)
+41 61 205 86 00
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Ranked #38 of 69 Attractions in Basel
Type: Specialty Museums, Museums
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Owner description: The Museum in the PrisonThe Museum of Music is housed in the Lohnhof, a building steeped in history. Originally part of a convent, the Lohnhof was used as a prison right up to 1995. Unlike its erstwhile inmates, today’s visitors to the Lohnhof are at liberty to roam through Switzerland’s largest collection of musical instruments. Spread over three floors, the Museum of Music boasts some 650 instruments spanning five centuries of music history. The cells serve as exhibition space, but just to make sure their former occupants are not completely forgotten, one of them has been left in its original state. The remaining twenty-four turn the history of music and musical instruments into feast for the eyes and ears alike. Interactive screens allow visitors to bring the instruments inside the display cases to life by replaying samples and listening to what they sound like when played. On your tour of the museum you will have a chance to hear all sorts of music, from the familiar to the curious.
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Reviews in 8 cities Reviews in 8 cities
6 helpful votes 6 helpful votes
“Wildlife photograph”
5 of 5 stars Reviewed January 24, 2013 via mobile

Wildlife photograph of the year exhibition. The photos were amazing and the exhibition was very well laid out and very informative with guides in English and German. The rest of the exhibitions are well laid out and very interesting pieces.

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53 reviews 53 reviews
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63 helpful votes 63 helpful votes
“Jail House Blues”
5 of 5 stars Reviewed December 12, 2008

Jailhouse Blues

Once upon a time, not so long ago (1835-1995) in Basel’s Old Town, there existed a prison—which had, long, long ago (1070) been an Augustinian monastery. End of fairy tale. Leaving a goal to sit in the heart of Basel on prime real estate did not make good business sense, thus a plan was proposed to convert the property into ritzy apartments. Fortunately for the citizens of Basel and its museum goers, the task proved too difficult to execute, so instead of becoming a posh place for the few, the prison became the largest musical instrument museum in Switzerland.

Along with its collection of Basel Fastnacht fifes and drums, the museum is home to about 3,000 European musical instruments (dating from the 16th to the 20th century) 600 of which are on view. The rest are in storage but accessible to music students.

Financed by private donations, the outer shell of the prison has been retained as have the prison cells and the original herringbone pattern parquet, restored to a rich lustre. The cells’ black walls and four-metre high ceilings provide the perfect décor for the glass cases of drums, stringed and wind instruments. At the foot of each cell is a touch-sensitive flat screen, placed at a height convenient for both adults and children alike; where, in three languages, you can read the history of each instrument and hear it played either alone or in a musical composition.

Outside the cells are centuries-old keyboard instruments of varying construction. One cell provides a hands-on display of piano and organ works. Finally, for those of a more lugubrious bent, there remains one untouched, vacated goal cell.
What struck me was that each instrument must have its own untold tale of a journey through the hands of craftsmen and musicians, across lands and into the care of people who sheltered or neglected them through decades of war, famine and pestilence until they landed, sometimes a century or four later in the hands of restorers, who then repaired, cataloged and mounted them in black display cases beside a little white number.

One of the more fascinating instruments on display is the Serpent. Once described as unlovely and bullocky, it is, as the name suggests, an S-shaped instrument, with curves encompassing up to 2.5 metres of hollow wooden tubing. Originally, Serpents were made from a block of walnut wood, the size of the finished instrument. The block was split down the middle, then both halves were hollowed out like a dugout canoe in the form of an ‘s’ then glued together. The final s-shape was hued from this reassembled block and covered with leather. Apparently, Serpents made this way are still more desirable than those made from high tech materials like fibreglass and owing to advances in carpentry, and probably glue too, are much easier to make than they once were.
How Serpents came into being isn’t known exactly, only that a Frenchman, Canon Edmé Guillau was (forgive me) instrumental in its invention and design. The Serpent was probably built by an instrument maker to the Canon’s specifications.

Prior to the 16th century, most music was written for the church and performed, without accompaniment, by the pure human voice (plainsong). Because low pitched notes sung by male voices lack volume, the Serpent was developed to fill that gap, thus it slithered its way into the church in 1590 and accompanied the male voice for the next 200 years.

Not to be outdone by the French, the English also developed their own Serpent, but constructed it from curved overlapping conical sections and bound it with varnished cloth strips or covered it with a leather sheath. Either way, it needed to be re-enforced with metal bands making it more durable, if less airtight than the French instrument. Its durability proved rather useful to the military, in turbulent 18th century Europe, because it could be played during marches, in battle and even on horseback.

From military bands to rural churches not possessing organs, the Serpent slid into the orchestra pit, until improvements in instrument design lead to its replacement by louder brass instruments like the tuba. This is not to say that you no longer hear the Serpent being played—just that you are not aware of it. Used in film sound tracks and commercials, it is also making a comeback with some musicians and especially in recreations of historic music recorded on the original instruments.

If you’d like to hear how a Serpent sounds you could try this link: http://www.oddmusic.com/clips/serpent.mp3 or better yet, hop on tram number 3 to the Musikakademie and visit the Music Museum in Basel.

Wheelchair accessible, the museum is closed Mondays, open: Tues, Wed, Fri 14-19h; Thu 14-20 and Sundays 11-16h.

Happy Day: 1st Sunday in the month free admission.
Happy Hour: Tue, Wed, Fri 18 - 19 h; Thu 19 - 20 h free admission. Different prices apply for some special exhibitions. Free entry with the Oberrheinischen Museumspass or the Schweizer Museumspass
Guided tours : 1st Thursday of the month

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