Andre Larson National Music Museum

Andre Larson was the director of the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota for 39 years. He retired in early 2011.

Journal photo by Nick Hytrek

 VERMILLION, S.D. – As he was growing up in Brookings, S.D., Andre Larson was reluctant to have friends over to his house.

His father, Arne B. Larson, had nearly every room packed with old musical instruments that he’d collected over the years. Instrument cases were stacked everywhere, including in Andre’s bedroom.

Over the course of the past 39 years, Andre Larson hasn’t had any qualms about inviting friends and strangers alike inside what you might call his second home – the National Music Museum. The one-of-its-kind museum on the University of South Dakota campus displays many of those instruments Larson’s father collected.

After all those years in charge, Larson is now moving out. He will be officially retired on Wednesday. For the first time since Larson was hired in 1972 to found the museum, someone else will be in charge.

“It’s just been part of what I am,” Larson said. “I’m very proud of all we’ve accomplished.”

It’s been quite an accomplishment. By the time Larson returned to USD (he received his degree here), his father had joined the faculty and moved his collection to Vermillion. The instruments he’d been collecting for decades were scattered across campus, stored in any building that had a little extra space. Andre Larson was given one class to teach, but his main duty was to establish a museum that would show off the 2,500 instruments stashed all over campus.

With no building designed as a museum and space at a premium, it was quite the task.

“It was literally one step at a time,” Larson said.

It’s since grown by leaps and bounds.

Generous donors provided funding to acquire collections of rare instruments from as far back as the 16th century. There are rare violins and pianos as well as exotic instruments from civilizations in Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands. Just about any type of instrument you can imagine is here. What began as a collection of 2,500 instruments has increased to more than 15,000, organized in nine galleries in the museum.

There’s no guessing about the pride Larson feels as he walks you through the museum and excitedly explains the significance of the pieces.

“There’s no other instrumental museum in the world that’s this broad-based,” he said.

Almost as impressive as the collection is the teaching that has gone on in Larson’s 39 years. He established USD’s Center for Study of the History of Musical Instruments to offer the nation’s only graduate degree in the history of musical instruments. Larson proudly lists a number of famous music museums in which USD graduates are now curators.

“I think that really speaks for this museum itself,” he said. “I’m happy with the fact I’ve established this institution as a whole institution.”

In retirement, he expects to spend quite a bit of time in California, where his wife owns a home. He’ll also be around, helping advance construction plans to expand the music museum.

“I’ll always make myself available to any extent they want me,” Larson said.

He’ll be happy to come home, to see those instruments that have filled up so much of his career.

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