The Smithsonian of Music in South Dakota

National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota

By Anna Levine

The University of South Dakota is considered home to more than just the 10,000 students who attend the university in Vermillion, South Dakota.

It is also home to the National Music Museum and a collection of over 15,000 musical instruments. Founded in 1973 and located right in the heart of campus, it is a music lovers dream.

The museum attracts visitors from all over the country and none are leaving disappointed after touring the vast collection of instruments. South Dakota resident Andrea Ronning brought two Nebraska friends to tour the National Music Museum: “The caliber and quantity of instruments made for royalty are astonishing. It’s an amazing collection.”


The museum began with a partnership between The University of South Dakota which provides staff and facilities for maintenance, teaching, and research, and the Board of Trustees, a non-profit corporation that is responsible for acquisitions, public exhibiting, and programming. The Board of Trustees is completely dependent on support from museum members, individuals, corporations, foundations, and governmental units.

People visiting the National Music MuseumThe museum is fully credited by the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C., and is acknowledged as "A Landmark of American Music" by the National Music Council.

The Arne B. Larson Concert Hall inside the museum itself has remarkable acoustics and provides an ideal setting for performing and recording music played on original instruments of various historical periods. There is also a specialized library, extensive study-storage areas, and a laboratory for the conservation and restoration of the instruments.

Orchestral horn, circa 1845
Orchestral horn, circa 1845

Unique Sources of Sound are All Around  

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Over 1,200 instruments and music-related artifacts including American, European and non-Western instruments from all cultures and time periods are on display to the public, a fraction of the expansive collection.

A few fascinating artifacts include the ‘Amati King’, the world's oldest cello, the ‘Harrison’ Stradivari violin which dates back to 1693 and more recent pop culture pieces like Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley’s guitars.

However, the list doesn’t end there, with highlights including the world's oldest playable harpsichord which resembles a small piano and the largest Javanese gamelan orchestra outside Indonesia.

Jim Leach, the National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman called the museum “a national treasure.” Guests are amazed at the vast collection of musical instruments in the heartland of the United States.

Close up of paintings on King Cello at National Music Museum
Paintings on the King Cello

Current  Exhibits

The NMM is currently displaying an exhibit entitled The Kolor of Klezmer, which celebrates the vibrant music associated with 19th-century Eastern European Jews.

The exhibit features historic musical instruments related to Klezmer: an Albert-system clarinet, a Meyer flute, a rotary-valve trumpet and, a hammered dulcimer known as a tsymbaly, a button accordion, and an Eastern European-made violin. An Ignaz Bartl bass trombone is a wonder of fluid metal work and rotary valves. The exhibit is slated to run through Labor Day 2017.

Admission, Hours and Location

The museum is open to the public 9:00 AM- 5:00 PM Monday through Saturday, all year round. During the summer the museum is also open Sundays, from 1:00 PM- 5:00 PM. Admission fees range from $10.00 for adults, $8.00 for Seniors and Military and is free to children, USD students and non-USD students with valid school IDs.

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The museum is located at the corner of Clark and Yale Streets, on the south edge of the University of South Dakota Campus. The building was originally the University library built in 1910.

Collection of guitars at National Music Museum, in Vermillion South Dakota.
Collection of guitars at National Music Museum

Future Plans

Soon the National Music Museum will undergo a $15-million architectural expansion. The new complex will triple the current 23,000 square feet of gallery space providing ample room to move artifacts from storage to the floor.

The New York Times called the museum “a musical Smithsonian” and with these new improvements it will soon uphold even closer to these standards.

So whether you are a music fanatic or looking for a unique stop on your way to Mount Rushmore, check out the National Music Museum and see for yourself all it has to offer.

Visit the Museum website

Anna Levine

Anna Levine is a freelance writer from Connecticut. She loves traveling, horseback riding, and experimenting with new foods.