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Del. Historical Society unveils next part of 'Collecting Wilmington: Place, Perspective & Memory'

Delaware Public Media

Another part of the “Collecting Wilmington: Place, Perspective & Memory” exhibition is now on display.

The exhibition features the sprawling collection of Paul Preston Davis - a retired Delmarva Power executive who spent over four decades gathering Wilmington-centric items -- everything from rare business trade cards, photography and African Americana to rare print materials, and commemorative objects.

“Collecting Wilmington” is rolling out in 5 parts. This week, the third piece was unveiled – featuring sheet music in the collection.  We talk to Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator Leigh Rifenburg to learn more about it.


Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media:Can you give us a quick overview of this particular portion of the Davis collection. How big is it? And what does it include?

Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator: This was our opportunity to work with one of the smallest segments of the Davis collection. This was actually one single box of sheet music that was about 50 pieces ranging from the late 1850s to about 1930. We kind of stuck in the area between the 1870s to 1910s.  Initially, because it was so small, we weren't sure if it was going to be worth devoting an entire segment of the exhibit to it. But the more we looked at the collection, and the more we studied it, it gave us an opportunity to do a couple of things.

One was to highlight a local Wilmington business, which we've been doing in the past. In this case, it was the Robelen Piano Company, which was a major factor on Market Street for well over 80 years, selling pianos and photographs and things like that.

It also gave us an opportunity to look at the kinds of things that the collection didn't include, because what we realized is that it was mostly a collection of 19th century parlor waltzes, which seem kind of quaint and uninteresting by today's standards. But really, the more we thought about it, the more we researched and read. These were the songs that were kind of the Billboard Top 40 of their day for a very specific segment of the Wilmington population at the time. So it gave us an opportunity to look at that and sort of lean into the idea of what the collection doesn't include. Who was excluded?   What did the middle class in Wilmington look like at the time?

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
An empty box in the “Collecting Wilmington: Place, Perspective & Memory” sheet music exhibit reminds visitors to thinkabout what isn't represented in the display.

Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media: I want to seize on that for just a moment, because one thing you showed me in the collection earlier, is that you have an empty box there, which is there to be a placeholder for that very concept.

Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator:Yeah, the empty box is actually pretty symbolic in a lot of different ways. The fact that this particular collection doesn't include certain things tells us as much as what it does include. And no archive is neutral. And when any collector sort of curates a collection, they make two very specific decisions - what to keep and what to throw away. We know that we can't keep everything, but those decisions that are made over time mean a lot. Inevitably, somebody is excluded, something isn't recorded, and something is lost. And so we recognize that's the case with the sheet music in the Davis collection.

It's very difficult, for instance, to find people of color in this segment of the collection. The sheet music that is recorded is very specific to the white middle class at the time, but it certainly is by no means representative of what the rest of Wilmington sounded like during the 19th century. We know, for instance, that much of the musical tradition at that time goes back to the African-American churches. A lot of the music is based on sort of improvisational secular stylings that we attribute to jazz and swing today. But that kind of music often was not recorded in traditional sheet music form. And so for all intents and purposes, it's lost. That doesn't mean that it wasn't important. It doesn't mean that it wasn't being played and listened to throughout the city at the time. So we really wanted to acknowledge that by acknowledging that there are gaps in this collection and sometimes by leaning into that instead of trying to gloss over it. You end up telling a richer and more authentic story. And that's what we wanted to do.

Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media:When you initially think of sheet music, that doesn't seem like you a common thing that someone would collect as part of any kind of effort to tell the story of a certain particular time and place, as compared to the rest of the collection and the business cards, photos, objects that are rare or valuable. Is it odd to even have a sheet music collection, even as small as this one, that that someone seemed to take some care to to pull together?

Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator:I think it is unusual, but when you look at how carefully Mr. Davies collected and how invested he was in collecting the history of Wilmington, it does, in fact, make sense. If you look at much of the sheet music in this collection, it was both written and produced right here in Wilmington. There was a duo called Brown and Edwards who got together, went into business together around 1903, I believe it was. And they wrote and produced a tremendous catalog of sheet music at the time, some of which could be attributed to very early Tin Pan Alley. That was then distributed and played and sold in the shops like Robelen Piano Company. So it all connects in a lot of ways to that sort of core of business history in Wilmington. And Mr. Davis was very invested in that.

Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media:Was there anything that stood out to you in this particular part of the collection as especially interesting? We talked about the overarching story, but maybe a specific piece or specific piece of music that jumped out at you.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The “Collecting Wilmington: Place, Perspective & Memory” sheet music exhibit offers glimpses at music and how it was presented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator: Some of the titles are absolutely hilarious. And of course, most of them are Delaware based. We have everything from "When It's Peach Picking Time in Delaware' to "Only in Delaware" to "Della from Delaware."  So, some of the titles alone and the cover art are pretty hilarious, but there are some more serious sides to the collection as well. We saw some covers that are fairly disturbing in terms of their content. We have one, for instance, called Alabama Frolic, which would have been used in minstrel shows and things like that. So it does have some racial overtones that are disturbing indeed. There's also the fact that a lot of the sheet music was compiled and sold in larger songbooks. And there are some clearly disturbing titles that are right next to things like "The Last Rose of Summer."  At the time that was completely normal, but to see these very disturbing titles that were clearly racist and offensive in many, many ways, certainly by today's standards is really sort of sobering when you see it for the first time.

Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media:I'm curious, are there any kind of challenges to presenting sheet music in a way that can engage with someone who sees this part of the exhibit?


Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator: This was a challenge for us because obviously sheet music is flat. A nd if you don't read music, it's not something that's necessarily going to engage people on the spot. One of the first things that we tried to do in the first case was to sort of recreate how it would have been seen and sold in a shop window. So we do have the sheet music displayed in the way that somebody who is passing by the windows of Robelen Piano Company might have first seen it. But this was also an opportunity to really sort of bring in other items from the collection beyond the sheet music that would have indicated how it was performed, how it was produced, how it was sold and how it was advertised. So, it really did allow us to pull from other areas of the collection as well and try and really tell a fuller story.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
“Collecting Wilmington: Place, Perspective & Memory” offers a look at how sheet music was used by local business in Wilmington

Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media:Speaking of the rest of the collection, there are still two more pieces to come. Remind us what's left and what we'll be seeing in those pieces of this exhibit.

Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator: It's hard to believe that were actually about halfway through. This was phase three of a five phase rollout. Phase four is going to be opening on March 4th. And that's where we're going to be looking for the first time at a lot of the objects in the collection. Specifically some beautiful Wellington made watches and watch papers. Then the fifth and final phase, which will be opening on April 30th, is going to focus on Wilmington photography and photography studios, the 19th century. So we're very excited about that.

Tom Byrne - Delaware Public Media: Leigh Rifenburg, we appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining us.

Leigh Rifenburg - Delaware Historical Society Chief Curator: Thank you, Tom.


Tom Byrne has been a fixture covering news in Delaware for nearly three decades.
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