Inside the Collection

MAAS outgoing loans program: portative organ

Image of a portative organ, from the side with bellows out.
Portative organ, made by Ronald Sharp, Sydney, 1986-88. Image: Michael Myers, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

A recent loan to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) highlights our commitment to providing access to the collection in new and varied ways.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) has an active outgoing loans program, through which the diverse collection is made accessible to audiences across Australia and the world. In supporting other institutions projects, the collection is researched, seen and understood in new contexts.

Towards the end of 2017, MAAS was approached by the AGNSW with a unique proposition. A musical program was being developed in association with their display of The lady and the unicorn, the iconic tapestry series from Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The ‘Hearing’ tapestry depicts a woman playing a small portative organ. AGNSW discovered via our online collection that MAAS had a contemporary portative organ in the collection. They were interested in exploring the possibility of the organ being played by experienced musicians in a series of newly commissioned pieces of music.

As part of the loan process, we always seek to balance preservation of the collection with access. The organ was assessed as being in excellent condition. It is a contemporary object made specifically for the museum, and while it has been exhibited it has never been played. For the purpose of this loan, there was therefore a need to have the organ tuned and this was negotiated as part of the loan, along with guidelines around handling and storage when the organ was not in use.

Photograph of a portative organ from above.
Portative organ, made by Ronald Sharp, Sydney, 1986-88. Image: Michael Myers, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The portative organ was made in 1986-88 by Ronald Sharp, a self-taught organ maker more famously known for designing the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ. In a letter to the Powerhouse Museum’s Director in 1984, Sharp sent his congratulations on the opening of the new Powerhouse Museum building in Ultimo. He recalled visiting the Technological Museum as a child in the 1930s, where he was drawn to the Strasburg Clock, making sketches and designs of this intriguing object and dreaming of one day making his own working model of the clock. While this never eventuated, he commented that in some ways the Sydney Opera House organ became his ‘Strasburg Clock’.

Image of the Strasburg Clock model, featuring a large numbered clock face, golden lions, angelic figures, and planetary bodies.
‘Strasburg Clock’ model, made by Richard Bartholomew Smith. Image: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

“This of course is an indication of the value of museum exhibits for inspiring people who eventually make a contribution to Culture”

The portative organ was subsequently commissioned by the museum and added to the collection as a demonstration of technical innovation in the field of instrument making. In a fitting circularity, the tapestries and the organ are now inspiring new works of creativity. The musical performances, in turn, are bringing the organ and the scenes within the medieval tapestries to life.

Photograph of musician Grace Chan playing the portative organ, alongside The lady and the unicorn tapestries at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Grace Chan playing portative organ, alongside The lady and the unicorn tapestries at the Art Gallery of NSW. Image: Grace Chan.

As part of the Art Gallery’s Art After Hours program Music in this stillness, the public will be able to hear the newly commissioned works, played on the organ in the context of The lady and the unicorn tapestries. With the first public performance scheduled for Wednesday 11 April, check out the AGNSW website for details of these events featuring performers Grace Chan, organist and PhD candidate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Bree van Reyk, Brooke Green and Josie Ryan, and compositions by Moya Henderson and Lyle Chan, curated by Jason Catlett.

Written by Lucy Clark, Registrar, March 2018

3 responses to “MAAS outgoing loans program: portative organ

  • Very nice post, Lucy! Having tuned the organ, does the museum intend recording it being played? Adding the audio file to the object record online would greatly enhance access.

    • Dear Debbie,
      This is Grace, the organist involved with this project with MAAS and the Art Gallery of NSW. Thanks for your enthusiastic comments. It was incredible to hear the portative organ make music and come to life after so many years of silence. Even more remarkable was to play in the presence of the Lady and Unicorn tapestries. Very moving and inspiring.
      Best Grace

    • Hi Debbie, many thanks for your post, and we agree it is a great opportunity to enhance our records and access. The performances were recorded and we will be exploring options to have these or other recordings made available. Best, Lucy

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