From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In our computer chip-driven world, many mechanical devices are becoming, well, museum pieces, and at one small New Jersey institution they're quite an attraction. The Morris Museum recently received one of the world's largest collections of mechanical musical instruments. They come from the estate of a famous beer man, and there were some unusual strings attached. Harriet Baskas explains in this installment of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project.


Step into the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, and it's museum quiet. A stuffed grizzly bear growls in silence, and vintage costumes hang in stillness, until, in one large room, collection curator Ellen Snyder-Grenier puts a key into a two-foot-tall automaton called The Clown Illusionist.

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Ms. ELLEN SNYDER-GRENIER (Collection Curator, Morris Museum): He's got bright red lips and a red painted nose and a black diamond over his eye. And the illusion is this: He's holding in his left hand a huge, feathered--almost like a fan. And he's bringing that up to his head, and as he brings it down, his head disappears, so you wonder, `Where has the head gone?'

BASKAS: The clown's head magically reappears in a gold box on a small table. And with another wave of the fan, the clown's head is somehow reattached to his shoulders. It's pretty impressive; so is the Limonaire Orchestrophone, a fairground organ seven feet wide and eight feet tall with more than 100 pipes, a snare drum, a cymbal and a bass drum.

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BASKAS: Now imagine living surrounded by 700 of these devices. Murtogh Guinness of the prominent Irish brewing family did just that in two side-by-side New York City town houses during the last half of the 20th century.

Mr. JEREMIE RYDER (Conservator, Guinness Collection): So you could just about turn around in any particular room and find some piece of mechanical music or automata all over that residence.

BASKAS: Jeremie Ryder is now the conservator for the Guinness collection. He grew up in the New Jersey suburbs in a family of music box collectors. They'd often visit Guinness in the city.

Mr. RYDER: And there were some very late-night gatherings of serious collectors that would spend till the wee hours of the morning partying and enjoying his collection in his residence.

BASKAS: Ryder remembers one night when composer and pianist Eubie Blake stopped by.

Mr. RYDER: It was phenomenal. Eubie Blake actually recorded on recording pianos for player pianos in the Buffalo area probably in the 1920s to '30s.

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Mr. RYDER: And we'd put on rolls that he was very familiar with on one piano while he, Eubie Blake, would be playing the other baby grand piano.

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BASKAS: Music-filled soirees at Murtogh Guinness' town houses also evoke fond memories for his nephew Desmond Guinness.

Mr. DESMOND GUINNESS (Nephew of Murtogh Guinness): He liked to live at night. He loved having people there to play the instruments to because it's no fun playing to yourself, really.

BASKAS: Speaking from his home in a castle near Dublin, Desmond Guinness recalls his uncle's plan for the collection when he died.

Mr. GUINNESS: He wanted it to be sold because he didn't want the instruments in a museum, where they would never be played and only looked at. And he thought that they could give so much pleasure to so many people if they were owned by a whole lot of new people. But, obviously, he changed his mind about that.

BASKAS: When Murtogh Guinness died in 2002, his will instructed that his mechanical marvels, which date from the early 16th to the late 20th century, be donated to a museum, along with an endowment to pay for their care. Getting such a valuable collection all at once is rare in the museum world. Getting a great collection with enough money to maintain it is almost unheard of. The small Morris Museum in New Jersey got both because it promised to raise additional funds to build a new wing to display the entire 700-piece collection. But row upon row of glass cases won't be enough.

Ms. SNYDER-GRENIER: Because so many of these pieces, it's about the music. And how do you let visitors hear what's going on inside?

BASKAS: The solution, says collection curator Ellen Snyder-Grenier, is both new and old technology. Video loops show fragile automata in action. Headsets and speakers play audio from delicate mechanical instruments, including an 18th century glockenspiel about the size of a bar of soap.

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BASKAS: But to capture the thrill of those late nights at Murtogh Guinness' New York town houses, the Morris Museum schedules live performances every day. Snyder-Grenier says the real show-stopper in the museum's 60-piece preview exhibition is the Hupfeld...

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BASKAS: ...a player piano topped by a large cabinet that flips open to reveal three upside-down, pneumatically operated violins that spin around and move back and forth to meet horse-hair bows.

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Ms. SNYDER-GRENIER: It's really quite a sight to behold because there are these wonderful little lights with prisms on the side that will light up. As the machine sort of picks up speed and this contraptional ...(unintelligible) and the top starts moving along and the violins start to play and the music gets going, it's really like a performance. It's just a phenomenal thing to watch.

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BASKAS: Murtogh Guinness would always delight in the show. But as he grew older, he could no longer enjoy many of his smaller treasures because by then he had become quite deaf. For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.

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BLOCK: You can see video and photos of The Clown Illusionist and other musical items in the Guinness collection at our Web site,

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BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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