You don’t have to be a fan of Percy Grainger’s music to appreciate the Grainger Museum; you don’t really need to know anything his music. You can look at this remarkable little museum as an exhibition of the life an early 20th century eccentric. It is half a biographical museum and half a music museum specializing in musical invention.
As a music museum the collection of instruments focuses on the eccentric and innovative. Grainger was a great musical inventor and experimenter, late in his life Grainger made a programmable electronic organ powered by vacuum cleaners. Grainger’s great “Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool” completed by 1952 is on exhibition (Burnett Cross writes about his experience collaborating with Percy Grainger on this and other experiments). Grainger’s eccentric position isolated his work from other electronic music pioneers at Melbourne University programming CSIRACto play digital music in 1950 or 1951.
There are less of Grainger’s folding suitcase pianos and his collection of European folk instruments on display now. They have been replaced with a whole room of Australian musical inventions and musical instruments. There are new instruments by Garry Greenwood (1943-2005), Colin Offord and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893-1965), who went from the Bauhaus to Geelong Grammar School. These inventors of musical instruments are also visual artists because musical instruments are also sculptural aesthetic objects and there are paintings by Colin Offord and drawing by Garry Greenwood that compliment the sculptural beauty of their invented instruments.
The biographical part of museum presents an unvarnished biography of Percy Grainger, the way that he would have wanted it. The museum is notorious for its exhibition of Grainger’s collection of whips and other relics of his sadomasochism. Grainger should be more notorious for his proto-fascist attitudes about the Nordic race and anti-Semitism. Other of his eccentricities such as vegetarian and passion for jogging (Grainger was known as the “running pianist”) appear ordinary today.
Grainger’s unbridled creativity and inventiveness is on display throughout the museum. Along with his musical inventions there are his designs for his published edition covers with the free-hand typography and his clothing creations (Grainger may have also invented the sports bra). The remarkable clothes that Grainger made for himself from towelling reminds me of the costume designs of Matisse for Diaghilev ballet.
And there is art from Grainger’s collection, portraits, cartoons, photographs, erotic Norman Lindsey prints and Grainger’s father’s collection of cartoons by Morris & Co. Grainger’s collection of Native American beadwork is on exhibition (beadwork was also one of Grainger’s hobbies).
Fortunately not all of Grainger’s desire for the museum have been carried out; such as, his bequeathing his skeleton “for preservation and possible display in the Grainger Museum” and his stipulation that the museum be lite by “daylight only, and to contain no electric lighting or other lighting (to avoid fire danger)”. It is a remarkable and unique museum; what might have been intended as an egotistical plan to fetishize the relics of Grainger’s life has changed with history to tell a different story.
Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne and left a museum to Melbourne; for most of his life he was in Europe and America. The old brick museum at Melbourne University doesn’t attract much attention; it looks similar to the toilet block/changing rooms at the sports fields further along Royal Parade. The museum has been refurbished since I last visited a decade ago and the exhibits have been rearranged to create a more coherent exhibition, so even if you have seen it before the Grainger Museum is worth another visit.