UTRECHT, The Netherlands — Right off the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, where bicycles zoom past with a clinking sound, is one of the Netherlands’ most surprising treasures, the Museum Speelklok (or Museum of Musical Clocks). Its name might evoke a rickety building with wall-to-wall carpeting and filled with dusty cuckoo clocks between which equally dusty visitors slowly meander, but it is actually a magical place. Devoted chiefly to automatically playing musical instruments, the Museum Speelklok is housed in the Central Medieval Buurtkerk (a former church), whose old frescoes occasionally peek out from behind the display cases on the renovated walls.
To start off the visit, our guide told the story of what could be called the “Carillon War.” To attract people’s attention before ringing the hour, Dutch churches often burst into song; for centuries, cities throughout the country have worked hard to give their churches the most beautiful and complex chiming melodies, resulting in an informal national competition to have the best-sounding bells. As our guide told the story, she activated the Museum Speelklok carillon.
The main corridor of the permanent exhibition space is divided into various alcoves in which are displayed automatically playing musical objects dating from the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th. As our guide talked us through the stories and mechanics of some of the star instruments, she donned white cotton gloves and delicately activated the music objects for us. Visitors can also request to learn more about a specific instrument and see it come to life. Larger, more robust pieces, like the baroque street organs, are available for visitors to play. There are about four or five different imposing street organs on display throughout the museum. Dating from the second half of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, they boast vibrant colors, exuberant ornaments, and paintings of Orientalist scenes. Some even include automatons that come to life when the organ player starts feeding the book music — in the form of thick, perforated cardboard cards — into the grandiose instrument. Visitors line up for their turn to work the (heavy) wheel that makes the pipes release their thundering sound.
Beyond all the magical mechanisms lining the corridor, visitors enter the spectacular ballroom. Exuberant, floor-to-ceiling orchestrions fill the walls, while in a corner stands a device that was once called the eighth manmade wonder of the world: the Phonoliszt Violina. Designed by Ludwig Hupfeld at the beginning of the 20th century, this fascinating instrument — a pianola topped with a small domed cabinet — is as surreal as it is ingenious. Once activated, the cabinet’s small doors open to reveal three violins, and the whole instrument starts playing. At this point in the visit, the Museum Speelklok starts to feel like the set of a Harry Potter film or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. A few minutes later, our guide disappeared behind one of the gigantic orchestrions. “What would you like to hear?” she shouted from behind the structure. We agreed on a tango. After a few clinking and scratching sounds, a boisterous sound blasted out of the gargantuan, automated instrument.
For the rest of the visit, visitors are invited to move through the rooms and corridors at their own rhythm. Each is given a magnetic card to activate the audio guides available throughout the museum. The card is decorated with a key design, mimicking the one used to wind up the mechanical instruments, while the earphones resemble the flaring horn of a phonograph. The audio guides offer a mix of factual information, storytelling, riddles, and jokes, providing information and captivating details about the clocks, music boxes, and other sonic devices on display.
In one of the museum’s numerous nooks stands a curious tall-case clock created in 1890 by Dutch clockmaker A.C.J. Jansen. This masterpiece displays 12 intricately decorated dials. Beyond the usual hours, minutes, and seconds, it also shows constellations, years (and leap years), sunrise and sunset times, moon phases, and seasons. The clock’s face is framed by beautiful wood lace work, and topped with sculptures of Hermes, Atlas, and another mythological figure, either Pheme or Clio.
In the technology room, visitors gain interactive insight into the mechanisms that animate the organs, music boxes, and other objects. Cross sections of musical instrument mechanisms are displayed in Plexiglas boxes out of which emerge crank handles that visitors are invited to manipulate. Engineers, physicists, and really anyone with a taste for tinkering could spend an entire day in this room.
The museum exhibit ends in a small theater with about 10 automatic musical instruments on stage. One after the other, they are spot-lit while they make their music heard and their story is told. “Imagine a world of silence,” the narrating voice intones, inviting us to travel back in time, imagining what it must have felt like to walk through silent streets and to hear, for the very first time, a piece of recorded music escaping from a half-open window.
In an age where complex technology is ubiquitous, the Museum Speelklok manages to plunge its visitors into a spellbinding world of intricate yet romantically old-fashioned devices. It succeeds at presenting completely obsolete objects as covetable wonders through a trans-historical voyage punctuated by interactive material and engaging storytelling. By providing direct and mediated opportunities for the public to interact with such fragile masterpieces, the museum also satisfies our spectator desire to touch displayed objects and to see them come to life.
Leaving the Museum Speelklok, feeling more enchanted than a seven-year-old after a trip to Disney World, I heard the bells of the Domtoren — the tallest church tower in the Netherlands — playing Vanessa Paradis’s “Be My Baby.” I stopped in my tracks: it was three in the afternoon.
The Museum Speelklok is located at Steenweg 6, Utrecht, The Netherlands.