The NMM's renowned collections, which include more than 15,000 American, European, and non-Western instruments from all cultures and historical periods, are among the world's most inclusive. They include many of the earliest, best preserved, and historically most important instruments known to survive. The quality and scope of the NMM has earned it international recognition.
The NMM was founded as a partnership between The University of South Dakota, which provides staff and facilities for preservation, teaching, and research, and the Board of Trustees of the NMM, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation that is responsible for acquisitions, public exhibiting, and programming. The NMM was established around the private musical-instrument collection, numbering approximately 2500 instruments, of Arne B. Larson. Larson's son, Dr. André P. Larson, was the founding director of the museum until his retirement in 2011. The second (and current) director is Dr. Cleveland Johnson.
The NMM is housed in a building (originally the University's library, built in 1910 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie's library building program), where over 1,000 representative instruments are exhibited in nine galleries. The Arne B. Larson Concert Hall has superb acoustics and provides a perfect setting for performing and recording music played on original instruments of various historical periods and cultural milieu. There is a specialized library, extensive study-storage areas, and a laboratory for the conservation and restoration of the instruments. There are violin-making tools and Baroque fittings, early harpsichord and fortepiano tuning hammers, and 1,000 brass instrument mouthpieces from virtually every turn-of-the-century manufacturer.
It also has rich holdings of related objects and archival materials, such as the unequaled Salabue-Fiorini-De Wit-Hermann-Witten-Rawlins Collection of 650 violin makers' labels. The American musical instrument manufacturers archives is the largest of its kind. Scholars from around the world make frequent use of the NMM's collections and facilities, providing an important opportunity for students to meet and work with individuals on the latest scholarship on musical research.
The NMM is the only place in the world where one can find two 18th-century grand pianos with the specific type of action conceived by the piano's inventor, Bartolomeo Cristofori. One of these built in 1767 by Manuel Antunes of Lisbon, is the earliest signed and dated piano by a maker native to Portugal; the other, built by Louis Bas in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in 1781, is the earliest extant French grand piano.