Richard Bratby

Small but perfectly formed: the Royal College of Music Museum reopening reviewed

Marvel at the oldest guitar in existence, the earliest surviving stringed keyboard instrument and the manuscript of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto

The oldest guitar and earliest keyboard instrument can both be seen almost as soon as you enter RCM Museum. Image: Phil Rowley

Haydn is looking well — in fact, he’s positively glowing. The dignified pose; the modest, intelligent smile: it’s only when you squint closely at the portrait that Thomas Hardy painted in London in 1791 that you clock the full peachy-pink smoothness of his complexion. It’s curious, because Haydn suffered disfiguring smallpox as a child, and a contemporary waxwork bust in Vienna is cratered like a moon in a periwig. Hardy’s portrait is a promotional image, commissioned by the music publisher John Bland. This is the Georgian equivalent of a celebrity headshot: a photoshopped, endlessly-reproduceable selling tool, so potent that it’s still being used to shift recordings 230 years later.

Well, of course it is. This is London, and even in 1791 music was big business here. I’m not sure if that’s the exact point that the Royal College of Music intended to make by placing Haydn so centrally in its Museum, but that’s what museums do, isn’t it? They use objects to prompt reflection, and draw connections. The problem being that when an art exists solely as sound waves, it leaves no physical objects to display: just the equipment used to manufacture it, and relics of the ways in which it was exploited. A museum of music is Hamlet without the Prince, but the Royal College of Music Museum – re-opened this month after a £3.6 million redevelopment – manages to pull off a very convincing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The manuscript of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto makes you shiver at the proximity of genius

That’s no small feat. This is surely the tiniest museum in Albertopolis, and in its last incarnation it was one of the more frustrating: a chilly 1960s annexe buried deep in the College complex, where Gustav Holst’s trombone glinted drably beneath fluorescent lights. All gone; they’ve scraped decades of congealed architecture from the College courtyards and reconfigured the entrance so you can walk straight into the new museum from Prince Consort Road.

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