Musical cabinets of curiosities with St Mary Magdalene Academy

Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosities, were the precursors to the modern museum. These cabinets appeared in mid-sixteenth century Europe as repositories for wondrous and exotic objects.

In 2014/15 Islington Museum worked in partnership with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and the music department at Saint Mary Magdalene Academy (SMMA) on the Arts Council funded project ‘Putting the Wunder back into the Wunderkammer.’ Our project explored how museum objects can still provoke ‘wunder’ (wonder) and awe, acting as creative stimulation for young people.

Islington has a strong music heritage. It was home to many medieval monasteries, the site of georgian pleasure gardens and hosts many famous music halls, theatres and cinemas. The museum itself holds the Sadler’s Wells Archive. Our project explored this diverse musical heritage.

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We chose eleven objects from Islington Museum’s collection to create a sonic Wunderkammer. The chosen objects come from diverse time periods but all had strong historic musical connections or powerful sound characters. We wanted to explore and present this musical identity.

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The Key Stage 3 and 4 students from SMMA worked with violinist Henrietta Wayne, cellist, Jonathan Rees and Rebecca Campbell-Gay, the Heritage Education Officer at Islington Museum to investigate the chosen objects. We explored the objects themselves, as well as the historical anecdotes surrounding them. We sang Gregorian chants to evoke the original context of the monastic floor tile, then sang Arsenal chats to animate the banner. We learned Georgian clown Grimaldi’s popular ballads, recreated a Victorian ‘bus stop’ and imagined a Suffragette protest march.

These explorations encouraged the pupils to experiment with improvised sounds and structures exploring the musical identity of the objects.

The students experimented with instruments, percussion, voice and body percussion to create entirely new music, both musical “microludes” of a few seconds and pure sound art.

The final pieces were recorded by our sound artist Zen Grisdale. We invite you to listen to our cabinet of curiosities, contemplate the objects, listen to their voice and image their stories…

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