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John R. Watson

Curriculum Vitae

Brief Biography
John Watson is retired conservator and curator of musical instruments at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF). His research on keyboard instrument history and conservation resulted in thirty-four reproduction instruments, three books, and numerous articles including the entry for restorative conservation in the 2014 edition of Groves Dictionary of Musical Instruments. His book Artifacts in Use: The Paradox of Restoration and the Conservation of Organs is a discussion about the coexistence of preservation and restoration in the treatment of musical instruments. His book Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America 1700-1830 is a collection of essays and catalog of the CWF keyboard instrument collection. His recent playable reproduction of George Washington’s 1793 harpsichord now stands in the mansion at Mt. Vernon and his most recent collaboration—a copy of what is likely the earliest surviving piano made in America—is exhibited in a museum alongside the original. He received the 2020 Curt Sachs Award, the highest honor given by the American Musical Instrument Society for lifetime contributions in that specialty. Most recently, he received the 2024 Anthony Baines Award in recognition of an outstanding contribution to the study of musical instruments, from the Galpin Society in Britain. He now serves as general editor of Boalch-Mould Online, (www.Boalch.org) an interactive database of harpsichords and clavichords and their makers.

Personal Information

  • Residence in Williamsburg, Virginia
  • email: j.watson [at] jrw1.com


  • Public school education in Endicott and Vestal, NY, and Dallas, Texas.
  • B. Mus. from Houghton College, Houghton, N.Y. (1974)
  • Science for Conservators, AIP Distance Learning Program (1998)
  • Historical Musical Instrument Making Traditions and Technologies: independent study since 1972 resulting in the making of 34 reproduction keyboard instruments, lectures, articles, and books (details below).
  • Conservation ethics and documentation methods: independent study 1989-present, resulting in two books and numerous articles and public lectures.
  • Information technology for conservation and organology: independent study 1990-present, resulting in programming of computer systems for conservation project tracking, conservation surveys, and treatment documentation. 


  • 2016—present: conservator in private practice – conservation of keyboard musical instruments for museums, musicians and private collectors.
  • 1988–2016: Conservator of Instruments and Mechanical Arts at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.
  • June, 2008–2016: Associate Curator of Musical Instruments Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.
  • 1977–1995: conservator in private practice – conservation of keyboard musical instruments for museums, musicians and private collectors.
  • 1972–1988: Church musician in three churches, directing overall program, and choral conducting
  • 1974-1995: Self employed, making reproductions of early keyboard instruments (4 clavichords, 7 single manual harpsichords, 7 double manual harpsichords, 11 spinets, 1 regal organ, 1 fortepiano.) (photo gallery)

Professional Memberships


  • 2024 Anthony Baines Memorial Prize, in recognition of an outstanding contribution to the study of musical instruments. by the Galpin Society.
  • 2024 Frances Densmore Prize awarded annually by the American Musical Instrument Society for the most distinguished article-length publication written in English. In 2022 volume of JAMIS.
  • 2020 Curt Sachs Award, the highest honor given by the American Musical Instrument Society for lifetime contributions to the goals of the society.
  • 2016 Conservation Advocacy Award "in recognition of his substantial efforts in public outreach and advocacy" by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).
  • Grant from the American Musical Instrument Society for online publication of the Clinkscale Database of Early Pianos. 2010 & 2015
  • Professional Associate, American Institute for Conservation
  • Samuel H. Kress Conservation Publications Fellowship 1999 resulting in the publication of Artifacts in Use: The Paradox of Restoration and the Conservation of Organs (see below)

Other Professional Activities

  • General Editor, Boalch-Mould Online, a research database of historic harpsichords and clavichords
  • Curator of exhibition "Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America 1700–1830" at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. See Exhibition photos .
  • Member of the United States Senate Curatorial Advisory Board (2011– 2014)
  • Consultant to the Göteborg Organ Art Center, University of Gothenburg (Sweden).
  • Publisher of Clinkscale Online, an international research database of Early Pianos, 1720-1860,  edited by Thomas Winter.
  • Co-chair Organ Historical Society - Restoration and Conservation Guidelines Revision committee.


  • "The venerable 'Boalch' - ready for its next 70 years"  Harpsichord & Fortepiano  v. 28 no. 1 Autumn 2023
  • "A small upright piano from Pennsylvania: Relic from the origins of the piano and made by John Clemm?" Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society v. 48 2022
  • "Achieving Restoration and Conservation for Historic Keyboard Instruments. No Compromise Required" Keyboard Perspectives v. 13 2021 (forthcoming)
  • "A 1793 Longman & Broderip Harpsichord and its Replication: New Light on the Harpsichord-Piano Transition" The Galpin Society Journal, v. 73 (2020) p. 153-172
  • "Changing Keys Exhibit Celebrates the Piano Revolution in Revolutionary Times" Piano Technicians Journal
  •  A Square Piano Claviorgan for Colonial Williamsburg with Thomas Strange, Historical Keyboard Society of North America Newsletter vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 2014) p. 10-11
  • Addition, Subtraction, Deception and History: The Restorative Conservation of Historic Pianos  Piano Technicians Journal vol. 57 No. 12 (Dec. 2014), 16-23
  •  "Proposed Principles of Piano Conservation"  published by the Piano Technician's Guild Foundation on their website and includedwith the PTG Journal article above
  • "The 1799 Organized Upright Grand Piano in Williamsburg: A Preliminary Report"  Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society  vol. 40 (2014) 9-28, 119-222
  •  Changing Keys: Keyboard Musical Instruments for America 1700-1830  (book) Scarecrow Press in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2013
    •  Review by Darcy Kuronen in Early Keyboard Journal (PDF)
    •  Review by Edward Kottick in American Musical Instrument Society (PDF)
  •  "Conservation"  (article with Robert Barclay) in Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments Second Edition (2014)
  • "Conservation Outreach and Issues of Cultural Authority: Making Inroads into a Special Interest Community" in The Public Face of Conservation edited by Emily Williams. Archetype Publications, London (2013) 33-36.
  •  Artifacts in Use: The Paradox of Restoration and the Conservation of Organs  (book) published by the Organ Historical Society in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 2010
    • Review by Joel Speerstra in Early Keyboard Journal (PDF)
    • Review by Robert L. Barclay in Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society (PDF)
    • Review by Dominic Gwynn in the Galpin Society Journal (PDF)
    • Review by Tilman Skowroneck in Keyboard Perspectives, Yearbook of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies (PDF)
    • Review by Edward C. Pepe in the American Organist (PDF)
  • "New OHS Guidelines for Conservation" in The Tacker: Journal of the Organ Historical Society vol. 53 No. 4, Fall 2009
  • "The Restorative Conservation of Organs: A Conceptual Roadmap" in The Organ Yearbook  Vol. 37 (2008)
  • "The Elements of Conservation: A Conceptual Model" in proceedings from the conference "The Conservation of Archaeological Materials: Current Trends and Future Directions" Nov. 13–17, 2005
  • "Instrument and Document: Balancing Values in the Conservation of Musical Instruments"  in Postprints of the Wooden Artifacts Group (2006)
  • Organ Restoration Reconsidered: Proceedings of a Colloquium (book) edited by J.R. Watson. Harmonie Park Press, 2005
  • “Conservation of a Jeffersonian Vision: Jefferson’s 1786 Model of the Capitol of Virginia” in Interpreter. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Summer 2002 pp. 1–5
  • “Conservation of Six Historic Organs at Colonial Williamsburg” in The Tracker  (Journal of the Organ Historical Society) Vol. 46, Number 3, July 2002 pp. 22–34
  • “Instrument Restoration and the Scholarship Imperative” in Early Keyboard Journal, vol. 19 (2001) pp. 7–31
  • “Performance Standards meet Museum Standards: The Conservation of Organs” in Towards the Conservation and Restoration of Historic Organs: A Record of the 1999 Liverpool Conference, ed. Jim Berrow, Church House Publishing, 2000
  • Costume Close-up: Pattern and Construction of Antique Clothing. 1750-1790 (book) with Linda R. Baumgarten. CWF and Quite Specific Press, New York, 1998 [graphic design and CAD drawings; L. Baumgarten is retired curator of costume at CWF, and my wife]
  • Makers of the Piano, 1820-1860 by Martha Clinkscale, illustrated by John Watson, Oxford University Press, 1998
  • “Theory and Practice in the Conservation of Musical Instruments,” with David B. Blanchfield, Journal of the Violin Society of America , 1998
  • “An 18th-Century Harpsichord Workshop contributes Two New Technologies,” in Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools edited by James M. Gaynor, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997
  • "Recommendations for the Conservation of Musical Instruments: an Annotated Bibliography" (CIMCIM - Comité International des Musées et Collections d'Instruments de Musique) co-written with five other international writers. 1993
  • “Historical Musical Instruments: A Claim To Use, An Obligation To Preserve,” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol XVII (1991), 69
  • “Balancing Physical Integrity with Aesthetic Integrity: Ethical Problems in the Conservation of Musical Instruments.” Abstracts. American Institute for Conservation, 1990. 18
  • “Claviers for Salem: Historic Keyboard Instruments in the Salem Moravian Community,” Moravian Music Journal, Vol. XXXI No. 1 (Spring 1986), 9
  • “A Catalog of Antique Keyboard Instruments in the Southeast,” published serially in Early Keyboard Journal, II (1983–84), 64; III (1984–85), 60; V (1986–87), 53; IX (1991), 71; XV (1997), 93
  • “Three Examples of Keyboard Restoration,” Early Keyboard Journal, I (1982–83), 16
  • Fine Woodworking Biennial Design Book (Taunton Press, 1977 p.157) and Fine Woodworking Biennial Design Book Two (Taunton Press, 1979 p.39)


  • Michael Latcham. Towards a New History of the Piano. München-Salzburg: Musikverlag Bernd Katzbichler. Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol. 46, 2020
  • Stuart Pollens. The Manual of Musical Instrument Conservation. Cambridge: University Printing House, 2015. Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol. 42, 2016
  • Alec Cobbe and Christopher Nobbs. Three Hundred Years of Composers’ Instruments: The Cobbe Collection. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2014 in Newsletter of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol. 44 No. 2 (Fall 2015)
  • Darryl Martin. The Art of Making a Harpsichord. London, Robert Hale, 2010. Review forthcoming in Early Keyboard Journal
  • Edward L. Kottick. A History of the Harpsichord.Bloomington,IN. Indiana University Press, 2003. Reviewed in Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society Vol. 32, 2006
  • John Koster. Keyboard Musical Instruments in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1994. Reviewed in Early Keyboard Journal, Vol. 14, 1996

Selected Lectures

(in reverse date order)

  • "Vignettes from the Beginnings of American Keyboard Culture" a keynote address for "Between Old Worlds and New: Keyboard Encounters, c. 1700-1900" for a conference of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies 2023-03-11.
  • "Biography of an Organized Piano: A Series of Unlikely Events" for the 75th annual Antiques Forum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2023-02-28
  • "An Ancient American Piano with Clues About Piano Origins" for the annual meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society, Calgary, Canada 2022-06 and as lecture-demonstration with keyboardist Thomas Dressler for the Moravian Historical Society, Nazareth, PA, 2022-10-02
  • "A Moravian Piano Gains a Voice" for the Bethlehem Conference on Moravian History and Music (online), 2021-04-21
  • "Reproducing the Mount Vernon Harpsichord: Did We Solve the Paradox?" for the conference, The Keyboard in Washington's America, Celebrating Mount Vernon's Harpsichord and its Reproduction, Mount Vernon, 2019-08-03
  • "Zombie Apocalypse or Miracle of Rebirth: The Case for (Restorative) Conservation" 40th Westfield Center conference, Oberlin OH, 2019-10-23
  • "The Historic Organ at St. Luke's and its continuing influence on Organ Conservation" Smithfield, VA, 2019-09-21
  • "George Washington’s 1793 harpsichord: Silent Witness for a New Reproduction" AMIS Annual Meeting, Carolina Music Museum, Greenville, SC, 2019-05-15
  • "A Virginia Musical Landmark: The BCHS Hitchcock Spinet" Keynote Presentation, Botetourt County Historical Society, 2018-11-09
  • "Keyboards of Many Voices: Reanimating two British-American Monuments" Annual meeting, Historical Keyboard Society of North America, Greenville, NC, 2017-04-26
  • "The Case for Restorative Conservation" Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, Student's Choice Lecture, 2017-02-08
  • "Principles of Piano Conservation" Piano Technician's Guild, National Meeting, Norfolk, VA, 2016-07-20
  • "Furniture that Sings: Keyboard Musical Instruments for America" Antiques Forum, Williamsburg, 2013-02
  • Conservation Outreach and Issues of Cultural Authority: Making Inroads into a Special Interest Community" for the symposium "Playing to the Galleries and Engaging New Audiences: The Public Face of Conservation." Williamsburg, 2011-11-14
  • "Saving Time for the Future: Conservation and the Paradox of Restoration." Association of Watch and Clock Collectors National Syumposium, Keynote address, Williamsburg, 2010-10-28
  • "That the Future May Learn from the Past: How Colonial Williamsburg Manages Information in Historic Artifacts." Association for Configuration and Data Management (ACDM) Annual Meeting, Williamsburg, 2010-3-22
  • "A Philadelphia Survivor: America's Only Harpsichord." (on the 1794 Trute & Wiedberg harpsichord) Southeastern and Midwestern Historical Keyboard Societies, Temple University, Philadelphia, 2009-3-13
  • "Copying Period Instruments as a Research Tool" the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative (EROI), University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, 2008-10-19
  • "Fossils, Oddballs, and Miraculous Survivors: Year 25 of the SEHKS Inventory of Historic Keyboard Instruments." Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. 2008-3
  • "The Restorative Conservation of Organs: A Conceptual Roadmap" (Abstract) Keynote address for New Dimensions In Organ Conservation and Documentation: An International Symposium Co-Sponsored by the American Organ Archives of the Organ Historical Society and the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative, University Of Rochester, Rochester, New York, 2007-10-11
  • "Instrument and Document: Balancing Values in the Conservation of Musical Instruments." American Institute for Conservation, Wooden Artifacts Group Providence, RI, 2006-6-17
  • "The Elements of Conservation: A Conceptual Model." 2005-11, Archaeology Symposium, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • "Overcoming Obstacles to Documentation" American Institute for Conservation, General Session, Minneapolis, MN. 2005-6
  • "A Conceptual Model and Practical Solution for Conservation Documentation" American Institute for Conservation, Objects Specialty Group, Minneapolis, MN. 2005-6
  • "CDS-Documentation: Creating a Database for Documentation for colloquium "Computerizing Object Condition Surveys, Ottawa Canada 2004-2
  • "The paradox of restoration: restoring the form, preserving the substance" International Scientific Instruments Symposium, Newport News, VA. 2003-10-3
  • "The Influence of Conservators’ Values in the Lifecycle of Cultural Property." American Institute for Conservation, General Session, Arlington, VA. 2003-6-6
  • "Musical Instruments in a Decorative Arts Collection: Can you Carry a Tune in a Tureen?" Antiques Forum, Colonial Williamsburg, 2003
  • "Pulling all the Stops: Conservation of the Wren Chapel Organ." Williamsburg, Music Institute. 2002-3-19
  • "Jefferson & The Capitol of Virginia, Conservation of a Jeffersonian Vision." Richmond. VA, Library of Virginia. 2002-5-8
  • "The Conservation of Working Objects", Williamsburg, Conservation Symposium. 2001-11-8
  • "The Keyboard Milieu of Thomas Jefferson," 3-17-2001, Charlottesville, VA, Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society
  • "The Paradox of Restoration: A Question of Form and Substance" 2001-01-06, Asheville, NC, American Musical Instrument Society
  • "Pianos as Primary Documents: Implications for Conservation, Restoration, and Copies" 2000-5-8. Vermillion, SD, USD Symposium: The Pre-Classical Piano
  • "Performance Standards meet Museum Standards: The Conservation of Pipe Organs" 1999-8-25, Liverpool, UK, British Institute of Organ Studies
  • "A Philosophy of Conservation and Restoration" 1997-10-6, Williamsburg VA, American Institute of Organbuilders
  • "Technology in the Kirkman Workshop: The State of the Art" 1997-8-22 Edinburgh, Scotland, The Galpin Society
  • "Old Technologies Meet New: Current Work at Colonial Williamsburg" 1997-5-12 Washington, DC, Comité International des Musées et Collections d’Instruments de Musique (CIMCIM)
  • "The Copy as a Research Tool: Reproducing a 1762 Kirckman Harpsichord" 1996-5-17 Vermillion, SD, American Musical Instrument Society
  • "Recent Trends in Conservation and Restoration" 1996-3-1, Tallahassee, FL. Southeastern Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
  • "Musical Instruments in Colonial America" 1996-1-29 Charleston Museum, Winter Training Institute
  • "Antique Pianos: A Conservator’s View" 1995-11-4 Durham. NC, Piano Technicians Guild Regional Convention
  • "The Palace Harpsichord: A Royal Restoration" 1994-10-5 Williamsburg, VA. General Audience
  • "Early Mechanization in the Production of Keyboard Musical Instruments" 1994-5-21, Williamsburg, VA, Tool Symposium
  • "The SEHKS Catalog of Early Keyboards - Highlights from the First Dozen Years" 1994-1-28 Charleston Museum, Southeast Historical Keyboard Society
  • "The Other Voice of Musical Instruments: Reading the 1766 Zumpe Piano" 1993-10-6 Williamsburg, VA. General Audience
  • "Johannes Zumpe and the Origins of the English Piano" 1993-4-17. Louisville, KY, Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society
  • "Musical Instruments in Colonial America" 1993-3-9. San Francisco, The Antiques Forum of Northern California
  • "Overhearing History: The Conservator as Technological Historian" 1992-6‑7 Buffalo, NY, American Institute for Conservation, Wooden Artifacts Group
  • "A 1758 Encyclopedia of Harpsichord Making: Reading the Tool Marks" 1991-11-4 Clayton State College, Atlanta, GA - Symposium
  • "Reconstructing Historical Musical Instrument-Making Technologies: The Artifact as Window. 1991-3-9. Bethlehem, PA, American Musical Instrument Society
  • "To Play or Not to Play: Antique Musical Instruments in Museum Collections" 1990-9-8. Washington, D.C. AASLH
  • "Balancing Physical Integrity with Esthetic Integrity: Problems in the Conservation of Musical Instruments" 1990-6-2. Richmond, VA, American Institute for Conservation, General Session
  • "Conserving our Primary Sources" 1990-5-17. Williamsburg, VA
  • "Antique Musical Instruments: Preserve, Play, or Both 1990-3-9 August, GA, Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society
  • "Musical Instruments: A Unique Challenge in Conservation" 1989-6-29 Richmond, Virginia Museum, Virginia Conservation Association