Love it or hate it, the accordion is just one of those instruments that elicits strong emotional responses from just about anyone. Superior’s World of Accordions Museum features not only a staggering amount of accordions, but plenty of music to back them up -- and a few accordion jokes thrown in for good measure.
“We are the single best accordion museum and collection of instruments and their taxonomy, in history,” said owner and curator Helmi Harrington.
She established the museum about 25 years ago in Duluth, Minn., but relocated it to Superior about 12 years ago. Harrington said that there’s no more perfect place than Wisconsin to have the museum, partly because of the state’s demography.
“We have so many specific ethnic groups that have loved and promoted the accordion,” Helmi said. “I think we’re in a very fortuitous place.”
The big draw of the museum is the accordions themselves. Harrington said there are more than 1,300 of them on display, with more elsewhere in the building for various reasons. Some are recognizable, and some aren’t.
“You’ll see all kinds of colors and designs, and many more types of keyboard structures than anyone presumes is part of the family,” Harrington said.
She said there’s such variety because after the instrument’s invention in the early 19th Century, different cultures put their own unique spin on it.
“The instrument spread like wildfire throughout the world, and every country and every small place redeveloped and redesigned them suit their own musical needs,” she said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of variations.”
In addition to the instruments, the museum features tributes to accordionists, library rooms full of accordion reference material, and over one million pieces of sheet music for the instrument. Harrington said the museum also features a concert hall where the accordions are sounded, and which has attracted accordionists from around the world.
The museum is a labor of love for Harrington, whose family history is closely tied to the accordion. After emigrating to the U.S. from Germany after World War II, her mother supported the family by playing accordion. Harrington played with the instrument as well, but would go on to study the piano, eventually earning a Ph.D. in musicology.
After that, the decision to start the museum sprang was an easy one. “The love of making the music has spurred everything I’ve ever done,” Harrington said.
While she’d like to think that there’s never been a major decline in interest in the instrument, Harrington said it’s fair to say that the accordion is currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts.
“There are more people buying more instruments, more companies coming into existence, more distribution issues that seem to go not only nationwide, but worldwide,” she said. “The groundswell is there again.”