Those who fail to learn from history are doomed never to make anything as cool as 17th Century keyboard makers.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announces (via its Twitter feed, no less) that it has gotten its Musical Instruments collection online. Over 800 inspiring objects of all kinds are available with photos, maker information, and historical notes, making this an extraordinary tool both for serious research and discovering wonderful designs.

The best place to start is the Musical Instruments department page, which includes links to highlights, how to find the gallery in the Museum (believe me, you may need that), publications, and other details. You can also search the database, picking out a keyword like “drum.”

Incredibly, this is only a fraction of what the Met has in their collection. The department has 5,000 pieces from every continent except Antarctica, with pieces dating back to around 300 BC, from Stradivari’s violins to rare African percussion.

Of course, seeing instruments isn’t nearly as meaningful as hearing them. The department offers concerts through the year, including an annual concert on its 1830 Thomas Appleton organ. Sadly, the works database doesn’t include sound samples yet; perhaps that can be the next step. (Anyone feeling generous and want to donate to them?) But this is the one case in which an art museum audio guide is a must-have; you can hear descriptions and brief sound samples when you visit the collection here in Manhattan.

Digital instrument makers and software designers often look only to the future or the recent past for inspiration, which is a pity: there’s plenty to learn from historic instruments. As a keyboardist, of course, my favorites tend to be the collection’s wildly imaginative keyboard instruments. One of my favorites of the museum is the 1598 Claviorganum, pictured above, which built an organ and a virginal into a tabletop chest of drawers. I always thought the idea of being able to pull a virginal out of a piece of furniture was somehow magical. It seems there’s no better time than 2009 to resurrect some of these ideas as people build their own instruments and digital technology allows new flights of fantasy. Bring on the Neo-Baroque Digital Age.

Updated: The museum sends us this video of a Strad performance, in case you want to know what a highly valuable instrument sounds like.

The concert violinist Eric Grossman performs the chaconne from the Partita no. 2 in D Minor by J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) on a violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717. The instrument — one of three by Stradivari in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection — is named “The Antonius” and comes from Stradivari’s so-called golden period (about 1700 to 1720).

Violin, “The Antonius,” 1717
Made by Antonio Stradivari (Italian, 1644 – 1737)
Cremona, Italy
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Annie Bolton Matthews Bryant, 1933 (34.86.1a)

And the Timeline of Art History has a bit on sixteenth century violin makers, in case you’re not an expert.