Grainger Things

19 March 2018

Content warning: mentions of suicide

Sitting between the Biosciences Building and Royal Parade is the Grainger Museum. A small, semi–circular, red brick building, which seems pretty unassuming from the outside. As you enter, you’re greeted by an oversized bronze sculpture of Percy Grainger’s face. It’s a weird sculpture, kind of abstract with a slightly pained expression. A surprising choice considering he chose it himself. The museum is arranged around this monument, moving from his early life through to his musical career and eventually onto his late experimental work.

Percy Grainger was an Australian pianist, composer and arranger who was born and grew up in Melbourne. He was prominent in the late 1910s and early 1920s, composing prolifically in this period and playing at prestigious venues like Carnegie and Aeolian Halls.

Grainger claimed the museum aims to “[shine] light upon the processes of musical composition … during the period in which Australia has been prominent in music”. Despite being initially called the ‘Grainger Museum and Music Museum’, it really only shines light upon Grainger himself. This is not to say Grainger wasn’t a significant figure in Australian music. But the museum seems to be, almost solely, an odd homage to an extremely interesting figure, by said figure.

I visited the museum on a Monday and I was the only one there. The only one for a while, I expect. The attendant was very surprised to see me.

Grainger left an unmarked luggage trunk to the museum, only to be opened ten years after his passing. It contained his vast collection of whips and endless albums of photos documenting his experimentation with self-flagellation and other activities. I initially visited the museum to see these whips, sequestered at the back, as this article was going to talk about Grainger’s experiences with BDSM. This was quite a scandal at the time, and while it does make for an interesting story, the rest of the museum is so much weirder.

As you move through the Grainger Museum, you’re presented with his life story. While it’s all very reasonable and interesting, once you remember the museum was founded, curated, and, in the case of some exhibits, made by Grainger himself, it seems to be awfully odd. You begin to see a picture of an eccentric composer that goes beyond any caricature of the archetype.

As you progress beyond the first corridor, it moves onto Grainger’s passions beyond music. These included maintaining peak personal fitness, making clothes out of towelling, and some others. It also explores the making of the museum, personal artefacts and his photography.

In the second corridor, there’s a cabinet that contains his belongings. Tea cups, a coffee pot, handkerchiefs, one of his tiepins and purses, and even parcels of hair from him and his wife, Ella. The whole fourth section documents his love of photography and his work in the field.

The museum is also partly in remembrance of his mother, Rose Grainger. Percy’s parents moved to Australia in 1877 and by 1890, they no longer lived together. The onus of raising Percy fell on his mother who had contracted syphilis from his father. She lived a tortured life suffering from continuous physical afflictions and delusions. Her passing affected Percy immensely, being the trigger for him to create the museum. Before she committed suicide, Rose wrote of her distress about rumours of incest between her and Percy, signing off with “your poor insane Mother”. In the exhibit in which her suicide letter was displayed was also a long braid. Percy had scrawled “BELOVED MOTHER’S HAIR” on the box it was in.

Ultimately though, while it is a museum that eulogises his mother, Grainger’s museum is an ode to himself.

While the museum is a really interesting visit, I feel as though that doesn’t arise from its intended purpose. I left with some sort of insight into not only the life of Grainger, but also his outlook on life. It wasn’t enough to be remembered through his works and his legacy in the musical world. Seeing his mother’s passing, he took it upon himself to ensure his life was immortalised in his hometown. Admittedly, he did achieve this.

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