A BANJO harp. A giraffe piano. A book signed by Charles Dickens. A coded religious text that belonged to the UK’s first female professor. These seemingly random array of items all have one thing in common – they’re all found inside the archives of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. 

Located in The Whisky Bond in Glasgow, it’s a place where “dead people come alive again” as the keeper of archives and collections Stuart Harris-Logan tells The National. 

“For me archives are not a storage facility, they’re a resource. You can either reveal the stories or create your own and so we want to make these objects available because what you’re doing is taking dead people and making them alive again.”

A trained ballet dancer, Harris-Logan joined the archive in 2009 tasked with bringing together items that, over time, had been spread all over Glasgow, Scotland and, in some cases, the rest of the world.

“It was disparate. We had stuff throughout Glasgow, at Strathclyde. Glasgow University had old student records. People knew these things were important but they weren’t curating them. 

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“Then there was stuff in cupboards so it was a complete mess and I had to try to work out, is this enough to for an archive and how are we going to go about that?” Indeed, one of the archive’s most prized possessions – a copy of one of Shawlands-born composer Erik Chisholm’s Paul Hindemith scores - was found down the back of a filing cabinet, having been left there for the best part of 100 years. 

Harris-Logan reckons there’s now more than one million items in the archive from rare letters to English composer Malcolm Arnold’s trumpet – “you won’t get another one of those”, he says, proudly.

A proud history

Founded as the Glasgow Athenaeum in 1847, the institution now known as the Conservatoire has come a long way. From a private members’ club with classes in philosophy, languages, mathematics and elocution to a world-renowned performing arts school.

Part of the joy of Harris-Logan’s job is that he never knows what he might discover from one day to the next. He looks into the past and decides exactly what to preserve for the future. “My job is to have an eye to what will be interesting in 200 years time because some of this stuff might not be looked at for generations but it will still be preserved”, he explains.

Sitting pride of place on a desk in the middle of the archive, a room lined by folders packed with history, is an ancient-looking, “moth-eaten” book known as the “Book Of Strangers”. It’s a very delicate looking guest book and an example of “what happens to velvet when it’s not looked after”, Harris-Logan says. 

The National: The Book Of Strangers contains the signature of Charles DickensThe Book Of Strangers contains the signature of Charles Dickens (Image: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

He explained: “As soon as I opened it, the first thing I noticed was the first person through our doors on October 4 1847 came from Greenland which is bonkers.”

Dickens, who incidentally has a sole page dedicated to his signature such is the luxury afforded to a literary great, presided over the opening soiree in December of that same year. 

“This book speaks to how we know what we know. It was an amazing find to start with and we ended up doing social media with the Dickens museum in London and all that. You can read the speech he gave. It’s actually quite dirty.”

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As well as Dickens, the archive has also found correspondence from American poet Ezra Pound and Broadway lyricist Stephen Sondheim – the man behind the music from West Side Story. 

A personal touch

Unsurprisingly, being quizzed on his favourite item is a regular occurrence for Harris-Logan and, while you might think it would be hard to pick one from a million items, he has a story to hand immediately. 

It’s one he says speaks to him “personally” – a sequence of correspondence between Erik Chisholm and English composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. 

“Not a lot of people have heard of him [Sorabji]. He composed some very challenging, still often not played, piano music. He was good friends with Chisholm.

“The Scot was responsible for bringing a lot of avant-garde composers to Glasgow in the 1930s. 

“After that Chisholm went to South Africa to become a director of music in Cape Town where he also became an anti-apartheid campaigner. 

The National: A French horn dating back to 1853 and designed by Adolphe SaxA French horn dating back to 1853 and designed by Adolphe Sax (Image: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

“The correspondence starts off as what you and I would see as musical analysis but then develops into love letters – this is two men we’re talking about in the 1930s so it would have been illegal and they both could have got a jail sentence. 

“It gets quite intense because Chisholm was married with children but he was obviously open to something because it didn’t stop. 

“There were two poems and a letter which is very revealing about the intensity of feeling. These things just don’t exist in history because they were always burned due to the danger inherent in someone finding them. 

“It’s a beautiful and yet poignantly sad story.”

Social justice

Harris-Logan believes that fighting for equality and social justice is “built into the bricks” of the Conservatoire and its history shows this. 

The organisation hosted a lecture with women’s rights activist Emily Faithfull titled “On the Vexed Question”. The topic? Whether or not women should be allowed to have the vote. 

“We had that lecture in the 1870s and Emily was invited to Glasgow to do so. Women didn’t get equal voting rights until 1928 but we were aligning ourselves with that thinking 50 years earlier.”

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He adds that when the Conservatoire was still a private members’ club, women were admitted even if the majority were men. 

Anti-apartheid campaigners also form a key part of its history. Cecil Williams, who helped Nelson Mandela travel across South Africa while a wanted man, was a teacher on the drama course. 

“I don’t think this is widely known but he agitated for St George’s Place to be renamed Nelson Mandela Place because it was where the South African consulate was and he wanted them to have the embarrassment of their most high profile political prisoner being part of their address. 

“That speaks to a long line of anti-apartheid campaigners. We have this equality, diversity and inclusion thing that everyone talks about but that’s built in with the bricks here.”

Student engagement

At the heart of the archive, is a desire for the students to engage creatively with anything and everything that can be found there. 

It also supports postgraduates, some of whom are basing their PHDs on the material found in the archives – one’s sole topic of research is the history of the trumpet. 

“We probably have the best trumpet collection anywhere but I’d say certainly in Britain”, says Harris-Logan. 

The National: The 'first soiree' marked the Conservatoire's official opening in 1847The 'first soiree' marked the Conservatoire's official opening in 1847 (Image: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

They also have one of only three trombones invented Adolphe Sax – the inventor behind the saxophone. 

“It’s only if an item is extremely precious and delicate that we wouldn’t let it be played. We also have a serpent, which is the grandfather of the tuba, which boasts fourteen keys. That’s so rare and we don’t know of another one in existence with that many keys so we wouldn’t let anyone play that but that’s the exception rather than the rule.”

The archivist also gestures towards a slightly worn-looking instrument in the corner of the room, which he explains is a banjo harp. 

Harris-Logan continued: “If it’s playable or refreshable we’ll do that. That banjo harp is bust and quite apart from the fact nobody knows how to play it we would get it sorted so it can be experimented with.”

Within the walls of this archive, there’s enough to fill hundreds of books, provide ideas for numerous PHDs and inspire countless new stars. As much as the archive is about preserving history, it does its fair share to help make it as well.