Five Questions with Sally Brown

January 22, 2019
In “Five Questions,” Sally Brown, a descendant of BBH’s founder Alexander Brown, celebrates the 130th anniversary of her great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown’s first gift of musical instruments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with insight into how she amassed the more than 3,600-piece collection.

2019 marks the 130th anniversary of the first gift of musical instruments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown, who was married to John Crosby Brown, former BBH Partner and grandson of Alexander Brown. What started as a donation of 276 instruments formed the foundation of the Department of Musical Instruments at the Met, and by the time of Mary Elizabeth’s death, the collection had evolved into more than 3,600 pieces filling five gallery rooms. We recently spent an afternoon with Sally Brown, Mary Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter and the Visiting Committee co-chair of the Department of Musical Instruments, to discuss the collection and hear her great-grandmother’s story.

1. Your great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown, built a collection of over 3,600 instruments for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did she amass so many instruments?

We surmise that initially the instruments were brought as gifts by missionaries. At that point in time, they represented unique objects from those returning to the United States from their Near and Far Eastern assignments.

Experts have said, “She didn’t know what she was doing. She only acquired things because they were given to her, and then she worked backward.” That may have been the case at the beginning of her collecting, but then she schooled herself. There was a great deal of self-teaching on her end. One thing that we don’t give 19th century women enough credit for is how much they educated themselves because there was no formal means for that.

2. So, she was not an accidental collector as her critics might say?

Particularly as she approached the end of her collecting, she was quite deliberate about what she wanted. When she had a gap she wanted to fill in the collection, she really went after the person. She was also thoughtful about what she paid for each item. She was not about to be overcharged. 

She was extremely organized from the start. Before she gave these instruments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she published a catalog of them in a large book called “Musical Instruments and Their Homes.” This book documented almost every item in her original donation so that people would know the details about each piece and be able to validate them. There was no photography in it; her son drew the instruments.

3. Was there ever a question about whether the museum would accept the original gift?

No. At the time, the museum had nothing like them and was ready to take advantage of the opportunity Brown offered.

The gift was considered an example of the art of music, but later, there was discussion as to whether some of her items were more scientific than artistic. She did not collect for beauty purposes or playability. She wanted to put together a historic collection of the importance of music for people worldwide – and she did.

4. It was very unusual for collections to be so global and far-reaching at that time. What do you think drove her interest in this truly global collection vs. something more based in Europe or North America?

I think the availability through Brown Brothers and missionaries, as well as some of her relatives, helped. She had no qualms about writing to a Brown Brothers correspondent and asking, “Can you connect me to someone at the Hong Kong or Shanghai bank who will point me in the direction of a certain instrument?” She had a knack for knowing the good locations to collect – where she could find unique pieces, such as a colossal gong from a source in Kyoto. Earlier, she had also made four important collecting trips to Europe.

I think you can describe the earlier part of her collection as serendipitous. Then, things became a lot more deliberate for her, whether it was non-Western, such as in Japan or India, or something in Europe. For example, she went after everything from instruments used by the Hindu scholar Tagore to the oldest piano in existence, the Cristofori piano. She had correspondents in Europe who would spread the word that she was looking for particular instruments.

5. What do you hope visitors take from the collection after walking through the exhibit and hearing Mary Elizabeth’s story?

I hope they’re amazed, surprised, astonished and interested. It is something that relates to all people, either as an observer or a participant.

One mistake that many people made was assuming that she depended on her husband’s money for the collection. Recently, it was verified that she inherited money from her grandfather, a renowned New England shipbuilder. Having some independent resources surely gave her confidence as well as some financial independence.

John Crosby Brown gave a silent speech in 1894 when the collection had grown and expanded that was essentially a paean to women who felt as though they were marginalized in the 1890s, and through Mary Elizabeth’s effort, he was proving that they didn’t have to be. So, there is a lot of women’s empowerment in the story – in terms of both his extraordinary respect for her and her devil-may-care attitude toward the work she felt she should do.

At the time, the president of the museum went out to look for Vermeers, Rembrandts and like paintings in collections in England, particularly from the aristocracy, so many paintings that came into the museum were important for their origins. A conch shell trumpet from South Asia? You need to have a lot of confidence to collect something like that.

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