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About the Stearns Collection

Holding over 2,500 pieces of historical and contemporary musical instruments from all over the world, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments is one of the largest accumulations of such artifacts housed in a North American university. Known internationally as a unique collection, it is not only a precious heritage from the past, but also a rich resource for musical, educational, and cultural needs of the present and future.  Among its holdings are the trumpet collection of Armando Ghitalla, former principal trumpet player of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and University of Michigan faculty member; a collection of violin bows from Jerry Tetewsky; as well as the first commercially produced Moog synthesizer and the RCA theremin used during the WXYZ broadcasts of the Green Hornet from 1936-1952.

The collection features permanent and occasional displays in the Vesta Mills Gallery and in various exhibition areas throughout the Earl V. Moore Building of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan. Exhibition hours are Monday through Friday, 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM. Admission is free. 

Additional displays are housed in the lower level of Hill Auditorium.  Access to these displays is available during auditorium events only.

We invite you to listen to an audio tour of the Stearns Collection warehouse with Dr. Steven Ball, then-Director, that was produced by Jennifer Guerra of Michigan Radio as part of the ArtPod Arts & Culture series.


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. As the collection's opportunities expand, however, human and financial demands also increase, frequently challenging our limited resources. For those who are interested, we welcome donations to assist with all aspects of our growing programs.


The mission of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments is to preserve musical instruments, advance organological knowledge, and to promote understanding of world cultures and musics. To achieve this mission, the Collection actively mounts displays of musical instruments, presents lecture-recitals from national and international performers/speakers, and provides opportunities for organological research. These activities support the musical and intellectual research of the faculty and students at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, University of Michigan, and also complement the diverse interests at the University of Michigan, aiding its role in the creation, exploration, and understanding of culture in local, state, national, and international communities.

Musical instruments from the immediate and remote past are not only precious objects that deserve preservation, they are also evidence of human creativity, musical technology and heart-felt expressions. Every structural and stylistic feature of a musical instrument is meaningful, reflecting the resources their creators have, the sounds they desire and the messages they want to communicate. Musical instruments reveal evidence of people and cultures and deserve to be preserved by the best means available. Every one of the musical instruments in the Stearns Collection is a treasure of humanity that we want to preserve for not only ourselves but future generations.

Embodying peoples’ musicality and cultures, musical instruments constitute a repository of organological knowledge that needs to be studied, transmitted to all interested practitioners while being preserved for the future. Advancing organological knowledge is particularly critical for the present as the standardization of musical instruments in the global market silences distinctive traditions. Holding more than 2,500 musical instruments from all over the world, the Stearns Collection is in a unique position to advance research that will help to sustain and disseminate knowledge about world musical instruments.

As precious and meaningful as all historical and current musical instruments are, they are mere physical objects if they are not used to give voice to the hearts and minds of the peoples living in diverse sites and temporalities. When used expressively, musical instruments and the sound they produce constitute a means for all of us to hear the cultural, ethnic, social, spiritual, and individual yearnings and understandings of humanity.  The Stearns collection aspires to bring a full experience of these instruments and the meanings they carry to audiences of all ages.  Our programs of concerts, lectures, displays and publications about world musical traditions are designed so that audiences may listen skillfully and sympathetically.


Fall 2011 Postcard #1

Fall 2011 Postcard #2

Fall 2011 Postcard #3

Fall 2011 Postcard #4

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Photography Credits:

U-M Photo Services

Joe Welsh

Peter Smith

David Smith

Glen Behring

Tom Bower