National Museum Speelklok

National Museum Speelklok

Utrecht, Netherlands

Dubbed the “most cheerful” museum in Holland, the National Museum Speelklok in Utrecht is a musical delight to visit.

The museum—Speelklok means musical clock—is a collection of traditional automatically playing musical instruments from the 15th century to the present day, with many still functioning. The attraction has been housed since 1984 in the restored medieval church, the Buurkerk, in the centre of Utrecht, and keeps an ancient Dutch tradition of street organ music alive.

Every day, visitors can hear the collection in all its glory during hourly guided tours when the instruments—all of which come with a program that lets them play music without a human performer—go through a repertoire that includes Viennese waltzes and tangos, ballads (known to the Dutch as “smartlappen” or tearjerkers), and modern classics.

The museum charts the history of automated music from the Middle Ages, when carillon clocks originated in the Low Countries of the Netherlands and Belgium.

In these so-called singing towers, a melody was programmed on to an iron drum with metal pins and when the drum was turned, the pins played a series of bells. In the 18th century, Flötenuhren (organ clocks) had become increasingly popular and some of Europe’s most notable composers, including Haydn, Mozart and Handel, were writing music for organ clocks, while royalty collected ever more ornate versions. In the collection is the Napoleon clock, presented by the city of Lyon to the French Emperor when he visited in 1806.

Other notable items are street, fairground, and dance organs from around the world, including the Mortier, which was built around 1927 and is the largest dance organ in the world.

The museum also features two versions of the famous Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina, a pianola with three violins in it that are played by one shared bow. And there are also simple musical boxes, pianolas, and the singing nightingale.

One of the museum’s biggest attractions is its Music Factory, or “pling-plong room”, where children can discover more about the extraordinary collection and even compose, program, and play their own original music on a box piece, while computer games and cartoons also bring the ancient instruments to life.

The Speelklok’s restoration workshop, housed in former auction rooms, is acknowledged as a world leader in its field, and today’s visitors can spend time in the workshop to discover for themselves how the instruments are restored to their former glory before being added to the collection. However, as well as watching the specially-trained team of restorers work to maintain, restore, and repair the instruments, and reveal the secrets of their own ancient trade and of the instruments themselves, visitors can put their own talent at restoration to the test, too. Under the team’s watchful eyes, visitors can learn how to build a clock or explore the materials and techniques used in the restoration work.

The National Museum Speelklok is open from 10am until 5pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, and also on Mondays during school holidays. Entry includes the hourly guided tour.


flickr image by indigo_jones

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