In 1899, Frederick Stearns (1831-1907), a successful Detroit businessman who collected and studied many things to satisfy his own intellectual interests, donated a collection of 940 musical instruments to the University of Michigan.
Beginning in 1914, the entire collection was put on display in Hill Auditorium in the encyclopedic manner typically found in the early history of museums. Four decades later in 1956, Professor Robert A. Warner became the director of the collection at a time when interests in performance with historically authentic musical instruments was 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 began a process of restoration, promoting the collection through performances and scholarly papers and lectures.
In the 1960s and 70s, the collection expanded significantly with the establishment of the ethnomusicology program in the School of Music, now called the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Professors William Malm and Judith Becker brought back many instruments from their field trips in Asia and Southeast Asia. In 1966, the collection acquired a complete Javanese gamelan, which has, since then, become an integral part of the teaching and performance of world musics. By 1974, due to evolving standards in the style of museum display and out of concern for the long-term preservation of the instruments, the majority of the Collection was moved from Hill Auditorium into storage.
In 1980, Professor Malm became the director and launched various efforts to implement the mission of the collection. Among these, the publication of the Stearns Newsletter, and the establishment of the Virginia Howard Martin Lecture series were particularly noteworthy. In 1986, the collection moved to its current site, the Margaret Dow Towsley wing of the E.V. Moore Building.
In 1993, Professor Malm retired, and was followed by Professors Margo Halsted and Joseph Lam. In 2008 Assistant Professor Steven Ball succeeded Professor Joseph Lam as the director of the collection. Today, a decade into our second century, the collection continues to grow, while tours, concerts and lectures are regularly scheduled to advance the knowledge of the world’s musical instruments. The collection’s online database, holding more than 13,000 digital images, was officially made available to the public for the first time in January, 2011.