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Image: The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata

The Guinness Collection of Automata

Field review by the editors.

Morristown, New Jersey

One of the world's most notable massings of mechanical musical instruments and automata (robotic figures) -- The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection -- is housed in a suburban New Jersey museum.

Murtogh was an heir to the Guinness Irish brewery fortune, free to indulge in over fifty years of passionate accumulation, acquiring nearly 450 instruments and "living dolls" plus 5,000 examples of "programmed media" (melodic storage such as disks, cylinders, and piano player rolls). He housed his treasures in two side-by-side townhouses on the tony Upper East Side of New York City, where he lived among his wind-up companions and elaborate melody makers, regularly hosting playing parties for a select coterie of like-minded enthusiasts.

Murtogh died in 2002, and the Morris Museum obtained the coveted collection by promising to build a dedicated 4,300-square-foot wing, which opened in 2007. Murtogh's machines are now part of the Museum's eclectic mix of holdings, which includes dinosaur eggs, model trains, and a selection of flashy Judith Leiber handbags (from the collection of Sunny Turnquist).

Image: The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata

The mechanical instruments were created for both private and public listening. Some are compact tabletop models, others enormous and ornate contraptions with evocative names such as the Orchestrophone, the Sublime Harmonie Plerodienique, and the Phonoliszt-Violina.

The automata range from delicate, lifelike birds to more fanciful creations: a monkey riding a Velocipede (an early bicycle); a pretty little maid who dusts a painted portrait (with moving eyes); a peacock strutting around and spreading his tail feathers; and a clown who raises and lowers a fan, causing his head to magically disappear and reappear.

The delicate mechanisms cannot withstand the wear and tear of constant play, so try to visit during the Museum's daily 2 pm live demonstration, where a rotating selection of instruments and automata are set into motion. At other times you must rely on the Museum's headphones and video as a substitute for actual activation. Whether you wish to be lulled by the sweet strains of a tinkly music box, or entertained by a band of aristocratic miniature monkey musicians, the permanent exhibit is sure to strike a chord.

Also, an additional 500 items can be viewed by peering into a glass-enclosed storage area on the lower level.


The Guinness Collection of Automata

The Morris Museum

6 Normandy Heights Rd, Morristown, NJ
The Morris Museum. I-287 exit 35. Turn east at the top of the ramp onto Madison Ave./Hwy 124. Turn left at the third stoplight onto Normandy Heights Rd. Cross Columbia Rd/Hwy 510, then turn into the first driveway on the left.
T-Su 11-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.00
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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