Oxford museums have a curious tendency to display enormous collections in the tiniest spaces. The density of artefacts in the cases of institutions like the Pitt Rivers can be overwhelming and exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating in their variation and volume. The Bate Collection is laid out this way, packed tight with rows of recorders, stacks of serpents and keyboards jammed in wherever they might fit. As you wander around the room, edging past euphoniums, skirting square pianos and bumping into basset horns, your eye is pulled in all directions. On one wall a set of Tibetan horns disappear into the roof while upstairs the percussion section you squeeze between ancient timpani. Enormous glass cases crammed with recorders are overflowing with antiquity; miles of brass tubing slither through the cabinets. The collection is immense, built over the last 50 years after the initial gift by Philip Bate and constitutes the most comprehensive collection of European brass, woodwind and percussion in Britain.
In such a large collection (around 2000 instruments with over 1000 on display), wacky creations and experimental stages of instrument development are always going to make a strong appearance. The oddest stuff, like a clarinet made from a plunger or the collection of instruments built from Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights is offset by real, serious attempts by historical makers. Personal favourites include: an early baritone saxophone, constructed by jamming a sax mouthpiece onto an ophicleide; the omnitonic French horn, designed to be chromatic without valves, instead using a complex system of crooks that would be attached via a movable radial pipe; and the Halari keyed bugle, built with a system closer to woodwind styles. For players, it is fascinating to see the development of your own instrument, and in a lot of cases how little they've changed, but some of the experiments will appeal to everyone.
One of the unique, and most fantastic, aspects of the Bate is the use of the instruments by musicians. Music students, and those who ask nicely, are allowed to borrow or play items from the collection, encouraging practical research into historical performance techniques. This has been championed by the collection's manager, Andy Lamb, and means that the Bate thrives, its contents celebrated rather than rotting away in cases like in many other historical collections. Visiting the museum, you are invited to touch and play and feel the instruments. Some of them are cheap copies laid out for everyone to try and are designed for heavy use. But others, especially the keyboards, are important, and delicate, originals, picked for their organological value. Visitors are just as welcome to try these out, even a harpsichord reputedly owned by Handel. It's an opportunity afforded in very few places, so should be taken advantage of!
With so much to look at, and such intense displays, one visit would rarely provide enough time to fully appreciate the collection. The Bate staff try hard to guide visitors and highlight certain artefacts through their audio guides (an excellent way to hear some of the instruments professionally played) and interactive digital catalogue. But their own cornucopic knowledge of every instrument and its history, construction and often heritage provides an impossibly detailed bank of information that is vital to tap into. Often offering their own personalised tours, opinions on instrumental construction and (sometimes questionable) playing ability, the joy of visiting the Bate is heavily augmented by the staff.
The Bate's slightly restricted opening hours and hidden location mean it's often overlooked by visitors to Oxford, and by those living here. But its reputation is renowned throughout the musical world, and is well worth looking into.