Top 10: Curious & Obscure at the Royal College of Music Museum

The Royal College of Music Museum has a collection of over 15,000 musical treasures. This exhibition explores some of the most obscure and outstanding of those objects. Explore more of our collections online at

Pocket violins (1650-1680s) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Pochette - maker unknown, France, late 17th or 18th century

The Royal College of Music Museum houses a large collection of pochettes, or pocket violins. They were favoured by dance masters and travelling musicians from the 16th to 18th centuries because of their small size. One of our pochettes has a little secret…

Pochette (late 17th or 18th century) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

With an expandable fan tucked away inside, this pochette wasn’t just easy to carry, but kept its players cool as well!

Bird flutes by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Pigeon whistles - maker unknown, China

This collection of small instruments allows humble pigeons to become musicians. Tied to their backs, these whistles produce sound when the wind passes over their holes.

There are a variety of different styles, each of which makes a different sound. They are used for entertainment, to deter birds of prey, and so that owners can identify their birds.

LIFE Photo Collection

As such, they have been used for racing pigeons and even army carrier pigeons.

This video from the 2013 Salisbury International Arts Festival features the Pigeon Whistle Orchestra trained by Pigeon Pete.

William Beale Wotton (1890) by Herbert Arnold WillmsRoyal College of Music

Portrait of William Beale Wotton - Arnold Willms, 1890

William Beale Wotton was the first bassoon professor at the Royal College of Music. He’s made our list of obscure & outstanding thanks to his magnificently styled beard.

He, and his superb beard, are pictured here with his beloved Savary bassoon. Our collection includes two of these beautiful instruments.

Glass Harmonica (early 19th century) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Glass harmonica - maker unkown, Germany, early 19th century

This odd looking instrument is a glass harmonica, made from twenty-five Venetian glass bowls mounted on an axle inside a wooden case.

Franklin Benjamin 1706-1790LIFE Photo Collection

Invented by American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, these instruments became popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century they had fallen out of favour, largely due its undeserved reputation for driving its players to madness, disorientation, and even death.

Joan Sutherland (1961-11-24) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

It was famously used during the ‘mad scene’ in Lucia di Lammermoor to create an eerie, other-worldly feeling.

Lute-harp (circa 1816) by Edward LightRoyal College of Music

Harp-Lute - Edward Light, London, 1816

Combining elements inspired by a harp and a lute, this 1816 instrument is an early hybrid. It was originally invented in 1795 by British maker Edward Light.

Woman with Dital Harp (1819) by Minasi & StadlerRoyal College of Music

The instrument was particularly fashionable amongst ladies including Light’s patron Princess Charlotte (1796-1817).

Domenico Dragonetti by Francesco BartolozziRoyal College of Music

Dragonetti's Doll - maker unknown, late 18th or early 19th century

Domenico Dragonetti was a double bass virtuoso based in London from 1794 until his death in 1846. Dragonetti was known as an eccentric and collector of paintings, instruments, engravings and dolls.

Domenico Dragonetti's doll by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

This particular doll was his favourite and, according to famous singer Henry Phillips, the virtuoso called her his ‘wife.’ She would occasionally travel with him to music festivals and is said to have sat in the front row at many of his concerts.

Hand stretching apparatus (1915) by Richard James PitcherRoyal College of Music

Hand stretching apparatus - Richard James Pitcher, 1915

This wooden hand stretching apparatus is more sinister than it appears. It was intended to help musicians strengthen their fingers in order to improve their technique.

Hand stretching apparatus (top view) (1915) by Richard James PitcherRoyal College of Music

The musician would place a finger in the grooves on either side of the gap in order to increase their span. However, this often had unintended side effects…

LIFE Photo Collection

Composer and pianist Robert Schumann created his own hand stretching device from a used cigar box, which stretch one finger at a time backwards while allowing the other fingers to move. The practice exacerbated an already weak right hand, leading to permanent damage and effectively ending his piano performance career.

Orphica (circa 1805) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Orphica - maker unknown, Vienna, c. 1805

Long before the days of electronic keyboards and keytars, people were working to solve the issue of piano portability.

Orphica - top view (circa 1805) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

The Viennese solution was the orphica – a three octave portable miniature keyboard in horizontal harp form that could be worn on a shoulder strap. The instrument never took off despite a few short pieces being written for it by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Copy of a cast of Chopin's left hand (1849) by Jean Baptiste Auguste ClésingerRoyal College of Music

Copy of a cast of Chopin's hand - Jean-Baptist Auguste Clésinger, Paris

When Frédéric Chopin died in 1849, sculptor Jean Baptiste Auguste Clésinger was called upon to create a cast of the Polish composer’s left hand and a death mask.

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (1848) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Hands are a common subject of fascination when it comes to celebrating great artists because of the belief that there must be something exceptional about the tools of great musicians.

Walking stick instruments (Flutes: late 18th or early 19th century. Trumpet: c. 1840) by Flute maker unknown, Trumpet by J. KöhlerRoyal College of Music

Walking stick instruments - Flutes by maker unknown, late 18th or early 19th century. Trumpet by J. Köhler, London, c. 1840

These canes are not just a fashionable gentleman’s accessory, but portable instruments! The RCM Museum holds two walking-stick flutes as well as a walking-stick trumpet with detachable bell and mouthpiece.

Walking stick trumpet (circa 1840) by J. KöhlerRoyal College of Music

Walking stick trumpet being played

Here is a clip of this very walking-stick trumpet being played!

Top 10 Most Intriguing (Collage) (17th-19th century) by VariousRoyal College of Music

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit about the weird and wonderful things in the Royal College of Music Museum collection. To see more amazing artefacts and artwork, visit our website

Credits: Story

With special thanks to LIFE Photo Collection, the Royal Opera House and the McClerran Journal.

Videos: animatedpup, Toronto Star and Gresham College YouTube channels

Concept: Maura Kalthoff and Lydia Baldwin

Text and image selection: Maura Kalthoff

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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