Online Musical Instrument Collections
Musical instruments, as objects of material culture, have fascinated people for many reasons: as tools upon which culturally-desired patterns of sound are realized; as sculpturally-pleasing physical forms (including zoo- and anthropomorphic shapes); as sites of remarkable craftsmanship and artistry; as mechanical marvels (either in their simplicity or complexity); as vessels of associative meanings (with nationalities/ethnicities, with social classes, with admired individual owners, makers, or performers, or with ritual practices); for the materials from which they are constructed (beautiful woods, precious metals, ivory, jewels); for their antiquity; and, in some times and places, for the remarkable monetary value they are assigned. Human fascination with musical instruments, for the above-listed or any other reasons, has led some individuals and institutions to actively collect considerable numbers of these objects. Especially in 19th-century Europe and America, there were many individuals who assembled personal collections of musical instruments that were eventually gifted to institutions. Such gifts form the cores of several of the present day museum collections that are presented below. Other collections owe their creation to 19th - and 20th-century European imperialism, a period in which endless numbers of quotidian and esoteric objects (amongst them musical instruments) acquired in the colonies were shipped back to Europe to eventually become the holdings of great ethnographic museums (or museums of ethnology). The end result of the multivalent nature of musical instruments and of the human propensity to collect objects is that tens-of-thousands of musical instruments are to be found today in hundreds of museums and private collections around the world.
Many institutions have made digital images of their musical instrument holdings and made them available to the general public through the Internet. Several of these institutional collections are listed below clustered into groups differentiated from one another by the nature of the institutions to which they belong. Some of these institutions are freestanding musical instrument museums with huge collections of historically significant objects. Others are art, ethnographic, or national museums with diverse collections that include in their holdings a substantial number of Western and/or non-Western musical instruments. Several music-training institutions--conservatories and university schools and departments of music--also possess and often exhibit their holdings of historical musical instruments. One particularly noteworthy searchable database of musical instruments is MIMO (Musical Instrument Museums Online), which is a consortium of twenty-four European museums of various types (musical instrument, art, ethnographic, and national) that make available to the user the staggering number of 64,070 (as of August 2019) musical instruments!
What all the collections mentioned here share in common are an online presence and some degree of internal search capability. However, exactly what you find on these sites varies greatly and is shaped by the mission and priorities of their sponsoring institutions. Most of these sites serve primarily to document collection holdings with images, provenance and accession information, and sometimes a short descriptive paragraph about each object. A few of these sites include audio examples, and fewer yet video clips of the instruments being performed. Some of the sites allow the user to seek out kindred instruments through organological classification criteria and shared place of origin and/or period of manufacture information. Only a few online instrument collections have as their primary goal the presentation of musical instruments as objects of material culture to an audience with little or no prior familiarity with these objects. Sites such as this one (the Grinnell College collection) function as an educational resource that targets non-specialist undergraduate students enrolled in introductory music courses. The instruments explicated on this site are in general everyday specimens and reproductions of instruments from earlier periods rather than historically significant museum pieces. Therefore, which of the following sites will be of use to a user will depend on that individual’s depth of knowledge about musical instruments and the sort of information being sought.
Each entry to follow includes the name of the institution, its location, the number of objects in its collection (in brackets), and whether or not the collection’s holdings are available through MIMO. Numbers have been updated as of 19 August 2019.
Musical Instrument Museums
University of Leipzig - Museum of Musical Instruments; Leipzig, Germany [3,594] (included in MIMO)
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Musical Instruments; New York, New York [3,606]
Museum of Fine Arts Boston: Musical Instruments; Boston, Massachusetts [1,100+]
Musée d'ethnographie, Genève; Geneva, Switzerland [2,373]
Smithsonian Institute--National Museum of American History: Music & Musical Instruments; Washington, D.C. [5,000+]
Scenkonstmuseet; Stockholm, Sweden [c. 6,000]
Horniman Museum and Gardens; London, England [3,058]
Musée de la Lutherie et de l’Archeterie; Mirecourt, France 
University of Edinburgh Collection of Historical Musical Instruments; Edinburgh, Scotland [4,098] (included in MIMO)
University of Michigan Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments; Ann Arbor, Michigan [2,500+]
Yale Collection of Musical Instruments; New Haven, Connecticut 
University of Washington Ethnomusicology Musical Instrument Collection; Seattle, Washington 
Galleria dell’Accademia - Department of Musical Instruments; Florence, Italy  (included in MIMO)
Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection; Grinnell, Iowa 
Oberlin Conservatory Roderic C. Knight Musical Instrument Collection; Oberlin, Ohio 
(by Roger Vetter)