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History of the Stearns Collection

The Stearns Collection has grown immensely since its inception in 1899. Below is a list of highlights, a more complete history, celebrating the Collection’s 100th Anniversary and written by Professor James Borders and then Director, can be accessed here.

1899 – Frederick Stearns (1831-1907), a successful Detroit businessman, donates an eclectic collection of 940 musical instruments to the University of Michigan.

1914 – The entire collection is put on display in Hill Auditorium in the encyclopedic manner typically found in the early history of museums.

1956 – Four decades later, Professor Robert A. Warner becomes the director of the collection at a time when interests in performance with historically authentic musical instruments is emerging in the musical and scholarly world. In furthering this new interest and in realizing the musical and cultural values of the instruments, Professor Warner begins a process of restoration, promoting the collection through performances and scholarly papers and lectures.

1960 – The collection expands significantly with the establishment of an ethnomusicology program in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Professors William Malm and Judith Becker add many instruments to the Collection from their field work.

1966 – The collection acquires a complete Javanese gamelan, today comprising seventy-five gongs, percussion and other instruments, which has become an integral part of the teaching and performance of world musics.

1975 – Due to evolving standards in the style of museum display and out of concern for the long-term preservation of the instruments, the Collection is moved from Hill Auditorium to the Stearns Building.

1980 – Professors William Malm and James Borders become the new director and associate director launching various efforts to implement the mission of the collection. Among these, the publication of the Stearns Newsletter, and the establishment of the Virginia Martin Howard Lecture series are particularly noteworthy. During Professor Malm’s tenure, the Collection moves to the Argus Building and is organized into five categories of musical instruments (chordophones, membranophones, aerophones, idiophones and elctronophons) and subdivided into geographical areas (Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa, Oceania, South America and North America).

1986 – The Margaret Dow Towsley wing opens in the School of Music’s E.V. Moore Building greatly expanding display opportunities for the Collection beyond the School’s library and lobby venues.

1993 – Professor Malm retires, and is followed by Professors Margo Halsted and Joseph Lam who formulates a new course of development for the Collection with expanded musical programs and restorative projects for musical instruments.

2008 – Assistant Professor Steven Ball succeeds Professor Joseph Lam as the director of the collection. The collection’s online database, holding more than 13,000 digital images, is officially made available to the public for the first time in January, 2011.

2017 – Professor Lester Monts becomes director and moves the Collection to the North Campus Research Complex (NCRC) with state-of-the-art climate controlled storage for the instruments.

2019 – Professor Joseph Gascho takes on the directorship overseeing the continued growth of the Collection, while concerts and lectures are regularly scheduled to advance the knowledge of the world’s musical instruments.