It Happened at Michigan — The ‘rare and curious’ Stearns Collection


Visiting Prague in 1881, Frederick Stearns ducked into an antique store recommended by friends.

He was in his 50s and approaching retirement after a successful career as founder and president of a Detroit pharmaceutical company bearing his name. He loved collecting – coins, shells, stones, artwork – and was intent on treating himself while in Bohemia. He had never purchased a musical instrument, but a small guitar caught his eye. It was called a quirten and dated to 1807.

Frederick Stearns
Frederick Stearns. (Catalogue of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, 1921)

“I purchased it because of the odd shape,” he said. “After that, whenever I found a musical instrument, I added it to my collection.” He acquired instruments for the next 17 years, focusing on the “rare and curious.”

And then he donated his vast collection to the University of Michigan.

More than 900 instruments arrived by train from Detroit just before Christmas 1898. It took six teams of horses pulling wagons to move the cases from the Ann Arbor train station to the University Museum on State Street.

Now in its 125th year at U-M, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments is considered one of the most diverse of its kind globally. The collection exceeds 2,500 instruments and is maintained by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, with some objects on display at Hill Auditorium and the Earl V. Moore Building.

The collection shows the evolution and diversity of how humans make music. Here you will find a two-foot-long rasping stick, also known as a hog fiddle, from the Bahamas. There is a mid-19th century tenor saxophone created by its namesake, Adolphe Sax. A carved wooden rattle from Alaska resembles a wild duck. A Japanese zither, made from paulownia wood and known as an ichigenkin, features a single strand of silk for plucking.

A photo of students with playing instruments
Students handle historic brass instruments, including a 19th century tromba with a dragon’s head bell, at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. (Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments)

There are instruments associated with festive occasions, such as an ornamental Egyptian saddle decorated with two dozen bells for draping over a camel in parades and processionals. Herders in Switzerland used a bronze cowbell in the collection to signify the finest animal.

The Stearns Collection is a teaching, research and performance resource for SMTD students, faculty and visiting scholars. In addition, the William P. Malm Stearns Collection Concert Series presents performances using the collection’s holdings, including an April 30 concert highlighting dozens of unique instruments.


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