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Senate House Library

Music, migration and cultural heritage: preserving the past for the future


Written by
Andrea Meyer Ludowisy and Salvador Alcantara Pelaez

Our collections are not just items, they also tell a story of where we came from and what connects us as a society. Working with other organisations through exhibition loans is a key part of telling this story.

Senate House Library has loaned a number of items from its collection to the timeless yet topical exhibition Music, Migration & Mobility – The Story of Émigré Musicians from Nazi-Europe in Britain. The exhibition, at the Royal College of Music, explores the lives and legacies of musicians who fled the Nazi regime and the ravages of WWII. In this blog, Andrea Meyer Ludowisy and Salvador Alcantara Pelaez, discuss why, and how, the Library loans items to external collections.

Many libraries have loan programmes, where items from their collections are borrowed and displayed by other organisations for exhibitions. Often when designing an exhibition curators need additional artefacts beyond those in their own collections to complete the story they want to tell. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure this is a smooth process and that the items we loan are suitable for display. 

We have recently worked with the Royal Academy of Music on their exhibition, Music, Migration & Mobility – The Story of Émigré Musicians from Nazi-Europe in Britain. The exhibition explores the lives and legacies of musicians who fled the Nazi regime and the ravages of war. Many of the most influential figures in post-war British musical life were émigré musicians, who were forced to leave their homeland as a direct result of the rise and impact of the Nazi regime in Germany. For many Jewish musicians, Britain offered a creative home where they could thrive and go on to a play a role in enriching its cultural life.

Senate House Library loaned several concert programmes to the Royal College of Music from the archive of the Anglo Austrian Music Society. The Anglo Austrian Music Society was founded in London in 1942 by a small group of Austrian refugee musicians as a means of surviving in exile and to also promote Austrian music in Britain. Music and the arts play a dynamic role in our social lives and cultural experiences. This intersection is a central theme in the Library’s collaboration with the SAS Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, with a particular emphasis on how items can be used to explore this connection. 

The items loaned, three programs themed around memorial concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to London, illustrate the success and resilience of the refugee musicians in promoting Austrian music in Britain.

The first of our loans, dated 1947 [from AAS 15 3] marks the first visit of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to London.

The second, also from 1947 [AAS 15 3], was a programme for a memorial concert for the great violinist Arnold Josef Rosé who had been leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for over 50 years. The third programme [AAS 15 6], dated 1950, was for a series of concerts featuring conductor Josef Krips, recently appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and soloist Yehudi Menuhin. 

The fragile ephemeral nature of the items was addressed by the Library’s conservation experts who preserved the objects’ original features as much as possible, devised custom archival storage and display solutions. When preparing an item for an exhibition, the conservation team at Senate House Library always follow the principle of minimal intervention and a fit-for-purpose approach. The latter means that, for any single item, the treatment choices vary depending on the use it will be given. In any case, the preservation of the object’s original features and the marks added by 'time’ are the most vital consideration.

While simple in their material nature, the three programmes lent to the Royal College of Music received somewhat different attention because of:

  • the good, stable condition of the 1947 VPO concert program, which meant no treatment was needed; 
  • the need to repair a small tear on the 1950 concert flyer;
  • the fact that, despite the small edge splits present on the 1947 Rosé concert flyer, no action was deemed essential as they were located at the ends of a perforated line whose character was to be preserved, at least in its current, moderately altered state.

A second, though by no means secondary, consideration that we need to take into account is the design of the exhibition itself. How will the items be displayed? What steps need to be taken to ensure they are adequately protected? How do we balance this with giving visitors the best possible view of the item? On this occasion, these were relatively straightforward questions to answer – we worked with the Royal College of Music to set up acrylic supports for the programmes to lay flat on.

A third and final stage of our work is the production of protective housing and packaging for transport from Senate House Library to the exhibition space at the Royal College of Music. Part of that housing may, as is the case with these programs’ new polyester sleeves, remain a permanent addition to their preservation. This is an excellent example of the loaning process helping us to improve the conservation of our collection items.

The return of the loaned items will by no means spell the end of the collaboration. Due to public demand, the exhibition’s run is likely to be extended until late May. The conservation team will have to decide on the feasibility of this extension. Other items from the archive will also feature in an article by Dr Beth Snyder, Assistant Professor of Music History at the University of North Texas. Dr Snyder was the Research Associate on the Music and Migration project and her article An Impulse to Transfigure and Render New’: The Anglo-Austrian Music Society in Wartime and Early Post-war Britain, will be published this in Music & Politics, a peer-reviewed open access journal published by University of Michigan and will discuss three colourful items from the archive.