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To Conserve The Met's Pipe Organ, We Pulled Out All the Stops!

On the left the Appleton organ is shown before renovation. On the right the organ is shown after renovation. The organ appears darker on the right.

The Appleton organ before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment. Thomas Appleton (American, 1785–1872). Pipe organ, 1830. 9 ft. 9 in. x 9 ft. 9 in. x 16 ft. 1 in. (297.2 x 297.2 x 490.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Margaret M. Hess Gift, in memory of her father, John D. McCarthy, 1982 (1982.59.1–.105)

Do you play a musical instrument? If you play a guitar or another stringed instrument, you may have tuned its strings or even replaced them. If you use a bow, you may have put rosin on it to get a good sound. If you play a trumpet, you've probably emptied the spit (gross!) so that the moisture didn't stay inside the instrument when you were finished playing. As a musician, you take care of the instrument so it sounds beautiful when you play it.

Here at The Met, the people who take care of the musical instruments are conservators. We work on instruments from all over the world, from all different time periods. We work with instruments that can fit in your hand, and last year we worked on The Met's pipe organ. It's the size of an entire room and has over 1,000 pieces, so it was a big job! Discover how we pulled out all the stops and more.

A diagram demonstrating how the organ produces sound.

A simplified version of how an organ produces a note. Gif courtesy of Martin Doering, creator of The Organ Site

Organs are wind instruments that make sound when air rushes through the pipes. Air must be pumped into a reservoir with bellows—a device that produces a strong current of air when it is spread apart and then pushed together. When a note is played, air produced by the bellows rushes from the reservoir into a pipe to create a sound. A pipe is connected to a keyboard through a series of different moving parts. When a musician presses a key, a valve opens, air goes into the pipe, and a listener hears a note.

The Appleton organ shown in the gallery after renovation.

The Thomas Appleton pipe organ after restoration

Inside The Met's organ there are over 800 pipes! Each pipe needs to be tuned regularly, just like a guitar or piano. But sometimes there are problems that need to be fixed. If a valve doesn't close tightly, then air leaks and the organ doesn't play well—it gets out of breath. Sometimes air leaks can cause an extra note to play even though the musician didn't press the key. These are called ghost notes. If all of the organ parts don't move well or at the same time, then the organ doesn't play well and can even get damaged. So every once in a while, these moving parts need adjustments to function properly.

We noticed many of these problems, so we knew it was time to give The Met's organ our undivided attention. The first thing we did was take it apart. This was a big job, since our organ has over 1,000 pieces, some very big and others very small. We needed to keep track of them all. We took many photographs; labeled the pieces, and took very careful notes. After the organ was taken apart, we would ask an organ expert to fix the problems with the moving parts. But there were other issues too.

A side-by-side comparison showing a section of the organ. In the left image, a decorative piece is mounted on the organ. On the right, the brass piece is removed.

Detail of an organ panel. On the left, the section is complete. On the right, a decorative piece is removed from the organ. The dark area is the part that was protected from the sunlight and so didn't fade. Notice how big the difference in color is!

When you go out into the sun you have to protect your skin. Otherwise you might get a sunburn and turn into a lobster! But human skin and wood act differently in light. While you might get more color in the sun, the wood of the organ slowly lost its color because of sunlight in the gallery. When we removed a decorative piece of woodwork from an organ panel, we could see the original color—a deep red. The sunlight had faded the surrounding wood to a much paler color. We wanted to restore some of the wood's color so that it looked more like it originally did. We also wanted to protect the wood from the sunlight.

We decided that we needed to put two coatings on the wood. These coatings had to be chosen very carefully so that they wouldn't hurt the wood, because our job is to protect the objects in the Museum. We also wanted to make sure that if we needed to take the coatings off again in the future, we could do so safely. So we worked with The Met's scientists to design coatings that would act just as we wanted. Once we had our coatings, we began to brush them carefully onto the organ's faded wood.

First, we used a special type of a paint to make the wood look the right color again. We applied the colors in very thin coatings so that we could control how it looked. On top of that, we used a clear coating that has very tiny particles, called nanoparticles, that absorb or catch certain types of damaging light. The nanoparticles make the clear coating act like sunscreen to protect the wood from being damaged by light. We brushed 21 layers on each wooden piece, including paint and "sunscreen" layers! Applying all those layers took a lot of care and patience.

Time-lapse of conservators rebuilding the Appleton organ. Photography by Gillian Suss; time-lapse production and editing by Thomas B. Ling; additional post production by Kimberly Cionca Sebesanu. Soundtrack: Felix Mendelssohn's Organ Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 65, performed by Kent Tritle

Finally, after many months, we were ready to rebuild the organ! With help from our organ expert, we carefully put each piece back where it belonged. It took many weeks to put everything together, but the work was worth it. The organ is safer and looks better. Come see it for yourself! Gallery 683 will reopen on March 22, 2018.

Have you spent a long time taking something apart and putting something back together? We want to hear your story! Ask an adult to leave a comment below, or email your story to

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