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Written by Karen Kindt, Collection Manager, First Nations Cultures
The Charles and Kati Marson Collection, donated in 2002, comprises 830 traditional musical instruments sourced from cultures and countries around the world. Queensland Museum in partnership with Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University, are custodians of the collection.
The donor Charles Marson was born in Brisbane in 1932. In 1959 Marson travelled overseas and apart from a brief return to Brisbane with his wife Kati in the 1990s, he continued to live and work outside Australia. He developed a life-long love of music and built up this internationally significant collection over many years, ending up with it in his home in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The collection grew to such a size that it needed special curation and maintenance. Charles and Kati decided they wanted the collection kept together, preferably in Charles’ hometown of Brisbane.
Highly significant, unique and valuable, the collection is referred to as our ‘living’ collection, i.e., some of the musical instruments, can be used for playing and performance purposes. The collection is also a research resource for student musicians, which is in keeping with the donor’s request. The breadth of the collection, with an emphasis on African, Asian and Pacific cultures, illustrates the diversity of ways in which different cultures have approached the production of music. Equally important, the collection highlights the relevance and significance of music to all cultures.
Imagine walking through the museum collection store housing the Marson Collection. You are surrounded by a glorious vision of sculptural wonderment. Instruments so curious in name, form and style, made of wood, bamboo, metal, bone, with rich embellishments of silver, semi-precious stones, feather, twine, leather, shell and seed pods. A floor to ceiling feast for the eyes.
You would be intrigued and appreciative of the knowledge of the artisan’s skills, that have been applied to the crafting of every one of these instruments. The musical instruments are so varied and culturally unique, to their country of origin. The collection aisles, shelves and drawers, are laden with slit drums, percussion boards, panpipes, trumpets rattles, lutes, horns, zithers, bells, cymbals, drums, fiddles, clappers, harps, whistle spinning tops, mbira and gongs, just to name a few!
Dr Kirsty Gillespie, Queensland Museum Honorary Research Fellow and Karen Kindt, Collection Manager, First Nations Cultures, are currently conducting research on the Charles and Kati Marson Collection.
Research includes mapping, archiving and digitising primary source documentation, associated with the 830 ethno-musical instruments held in the collection. This vital research captures and preserves important contextual information, which is at high risk of loss, due to fragility of the documentation. The documents are being collated and archived to benchmark industry standards, using acid-free board supports, mylar enclosures and conservation-grade storage systems, thereby extending their longevity in the collection holdings.
Digitisation of these documents enables information sharing with wider museum audiences and communities. The process is also forging a gateway to building community engagement with First Nation World Cultures, associated with the traditional musical instruments the collection holdings, through shared knowledge, interpretation and planned future co-curation projects.
Born in Morningside, Brisbane in 1932, Charles Marson’s love of music and interest in anthropology started at an early age. Each year the family travelled from Redcliff to Brisbane to see the Exhibition. On the way they would stop at the Queensland Museum where Charles would bypass the WWI German tank on display out front and go in to look at the Pacific artefacts and tools in the large glass display cases. In 1956 he moved to Darwin where he worked as an electronic technician for the Civil Aviation Department. In 1959 he sailed for England with a couple friends and a year and a half later was recruited by Canadian Marconi. In September 1960 he arrived in Great Whale River on Hudson’s Bay where he worked as a radio technician on the Mid-Canada Line. His love of classical music, first fostered by the varied broadcasts on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio stations continued to grow. Each year he eagerly listened to the Wagner opera broadcasts from Bayreuth; a tradition that started in 1951 and continued through the 1990s.
Meanwhile Kati Vita was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1937 where her father ran a cinema. Her earliest memories were of being taken to the opera by her parents to see Wagner’s Das Reingold when she was five. Thus her love of the arts was born. After a couple of years on her own at a British boarding school, the family was reunited in Canada in 1952 where her foray into the arts continued with a brief stint at arts school. At 17 she started writing radio dramas for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). After a year of frustration, armed with nothing more than a tape recorder and a microphone, she headed for New York where she interviewed most of the stars appearing on Broadway that season. She had found her calling. The CBC bought her first interview with Rod Steiger in 1957. Over the next 35 years, living variously in Canada, Australia and the UK, she interviewed people like Marlene Dietrich, Rudolph Nureyev, Laurence Olivier, Boris Christoff, Coretta King - Martin Luther King’s wife, Ella Collins - Malcolm X’s sister, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and various directors of the Australian Ballet, to name but a very few. This year the roughly 1,500 tapes of these interviews were donated to the National Archives of Canada.
Late in 1960 Kati went up to Great Whale River to do a feature on life in the far Canadian North. There she met and fell in love with the tall Australian with the yellow kangaroos painted on his boots. They were married in July 1961 and immediately headed for Europe for an extended honeymoon that included a stop at the Bayreuth Festival. Early in 1962 they returned to Brisbane, where their son was born and a year and a half later they were back in Canada, settled in Montreal by the time their daughter was born. After management studies at McGill University, Charles worked for Dominion Glass for 10 years, reorganising their manufacturing plants across Canada. The following years included a four-year stay in London, England, where the family soaked up the multitude of rich cultural offerings the early 70s had to offer. The opera, ballet and theatre featured regularly on the agenda and forays into the Sunday market at Portobello road offered the first inkling of a passion that started in Great Whale with the gift of a frame drum from a local Cree Indian elder and was to continue for over 30 years. The wealth of stalls often yielded the most fascinating finds of traditional musical instruments from many of the most primitive cultures of the Pacific and Asia. Burmese gongs, Tibetan conch shells and garamut drums soon found places of honour all over the house. As the collection grew instruments could be found in more and more places; in the dining room, bedroom, kitchen, even the bathroom. Wherever the family travelled, instruments were unearthed. And as with all collecting, the hunt was almost as satisfying as the find itself. Regular “suppliers” were found in Sydney and Melbourne as well as London, New York and Ottawa and Montreal in Canada.
It was during a visit to the new section of the Pitt River Museum at Oxford University that Charles and Kati realized that his collection had reached an international calibre. By the late 1990s it was almost 800 pieces strong and his encyclopaedic knowledge had also grown. His physical ability to play the instruments never quite matched his passion for the many different cultures the collection encompassed. However, at any time he could identify each piece, often relating quaint stories and historical tales that went with them. He had become a true ethnomusicologist. Kati was very indulgent of Charles’ “hobby” though had been heard to comment that stamp collecting would have required less room, especially when contemplating the 12 foot Ambryn Island garamut drum that lived in the dining room for 15 years.
Over the years many expressed an interest in the collection. Some of the instruments were used in recordings by performance artists while others, such as a 12 foot copper and silver Tibetan horn was borrowed by some visiting Tibetan monks for a religious ceremony.
In the early 1980s Charles was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In 1987 he retired on disability from his position as a manager at Squibb Pharmaceuticals. By the mid 1990s the Parkinson’s had progressed to a stage where he could no longer properly care for the collection so his thoughts turned to seeing the instruments safely to a new home. His fervent desire was to see the collection back in Australia, and preferably in his hometown, Brisbane. Negotiations with the Queensland University and Monash University in Melbourne did not bear fruit. Finally a joint venture with Griffiths University and the Queensland Museum started to show potential. Kati worked tirelessly for months cataloguing the instruments and negotiating with the Museum, the University and various government departments both in Australia and Canada. These months eventually turned into six years. Unfortunately she would never see the project through to the end as she died on November 24, 2001 after an eight month illness. The Charles and Kati Marson Collection left Canada Australia bound on March 1, 2002.