suxConservation of the organs begins with their protection. There are certain risks to the organs which cannot be prevented, such as their deterioration over time or their destruction from natural disasters, particularly earthquakes or fires. But the risk of deliberate damage or destruction based on ignorance is preventable and combating this ignorance has proved to be our greatest challenge. In many communities, the organs have not functioned for years, the local people have no memory of their sound or even realize that they were once musical instruments, and see them only as old, termite-ridden, cumbersome pieces of furniture in the choir loft.

Organs may be dismembered for their parts, and we have found pieces of the organs used to repair roofs and altarpieces, as part of fences, and just thrown away in piles of garbage near the church. Even more dangerous are the “modernization” projects, when the municipal or church authority decides to throw out everything that is damaged, looks bad, or doesn´t work anymore. For this reason a countless number of religious objects, not just the organs, have been lost.

quiaIn 1999, more than two hundred Oaxacan churches were severly affected by earthquakes, and several organs were badly damaged or came apart when they were lowered from the choir loft with ropes and then raised up again during roof repair projects.

In addition, the recent phenomenon of migration to the north has drastically reduced the population in many communities, which along with the shortage of priests means that many churches are rarely open. As a consequence, the local people have lost contact with the furnishings of their churches and sometimes when they accompany us to the choir loft, admit that this is the first time they have ever been up there or seen the organ.

The IOHIO has made dozens of field trips to protect, document and conserve the organs. This work is ongoing because the organs require constant check ups, and we always hope that there won´t be too many unpleasant surprises awaiting us if some time has passed since our last visit to a particular community. Our activities are supported by a letter of authorization from the Oaxaca Regional Center of the INAH, printed information about the organs and the IOHIO, and the permission of the local authorities, some of whom are always present while we carry out our work.

Protective measures include the following:

Moving the organ back to its original position or to another safe place in the church if it has been moved elsewhere.


Contacting the architects of the INAH for evaluation of structural problems in the churches which may put the organs at risk, particularly during an earthquake.


Constructing replacement keyboard covers for organs which have lost them and as a result, have lost some or all of their keys. These wooden covers are painted to replicate the original color and blend in with the organ, but do not pretend to match the historical material perfectly.



Installing posts connected by rope to establish an off-limits zone around the decorated organs. This helps to protect them from the vandalism of people who pick and scratch at the paint, remove loose pieces, and leave graffiti on the case


Placing a plastic-encased label on or near the organ which shows the logo of the CONACULTA/INAH, representing its authority as the protector of the national patrimony and states: “The historic organ of (the name of the community) is part of the national patrimony and is protected by the Federal Law for Archeological, Artistic and Historical Zones and Monuments. Take care of it because it is a part of the history of your community.”


Placing a second label bearing the logo of the IOHIO and including the specific or approximate date of the organ´s construction, the name of the builder if known, special characteristics of the organ, and things which the community should and should not do to protect and conserve it:

                   YES - restrict access to the choir loft and keep the area clean
                   YES - install screens on the windows and doors of the church to keep out birds and other animals
                   YES - cover the organ during construction or remodeling projects in the church
                    NO - clean the organ, except to dust it off
                    NO - remove any pieces of the organ
                    NO - store objects unrelated to the organ in the interior of the case or on top of the bellows

Our principal objective is to inform the people in the community that the organ has its own rights and that they cannot do with it as they please (fix it, restore it, sell it, take it apart, or destroy it). Copies of these labels are left in the municipal or church office as a reference.

As soon as the organ´s protection is assured, we focus on its documentation. The IOHIO has developed a database in which detailed information about the organs. The documentation includes measurements and photographs of the organ and its components, register of inscriptions (dates, names), tool marks, paint layers and decorative elements, descriptive analysis, and historical data.


The data are recorded in the following fields:

• General information about the organ
• Historical data and interventions
• Case and façade pipes
• Windchests and pallet boxes
• Keyboards and key action
• Stop action
• Wind system
• Pipework
• Disposition
• Church and community







Conservation work on the organs is carried out in a systematic way and includes cleaning, measuring, photographing, analyzing, and assembling the organ. Each member of our work team has a specific responsibility and also collaborates with the general effort. Organbuilder Susan Tatteroshall supervises the projects and analyzes the organ´s construction, Ricardo Rodys, David Antonio Reyes, Joel Vásquez and Deborah Polhemus Ruiz clean the organ and measure the components, Rodys studies historical inscriptions, and Cicely Winter registers the information in the database and coordinates the relations with the community.



We begin with a basic cleaning of the choir loft. Most of the organs are located in rural communities, have not been played for at least 50 years, and are usually filthy. Since filth attracts vermin, the deterioration begins to feed on itself. Besides this, if the organ is abandoned or just used to store junk, the community will not regard it as an object of value which merits protection. Therefore, one of our main goals during these visits is to make the organ look more presentable.


We first remove all the objects stored in the interior of the case, which may be related to the organ or not. Next we clean out the interior of the case which is often an arduous and unpleasant job. We carefully remove the wooden components if they have been damaged by filth and clean them off. The pipes are removed if feasible and are washed in buckets of water (which turns black in no time). If the pipes are decorated, they are not washed, just dusted off. They are then spread out to dry on the floor or a table and arranged by registration groups in accordance with the layout of the organ. The keys are cleaned one by one with a damp rag.


The exterior of the organ case and the bellows are wiped off or dusted, depending on whether they have any painted decoration or not. All the components are then documented, analyzed in order to understand the organ´s manufacture, and recorded in the IOHIO database.


After this, the instrument is reassembled and loose pieces of the case are attached whenever possible. Very small or damaged pipes or other components are stored in labeled boxes inside the organ case or nearby for safekeeping.


At least one representative of the municipal government is always on hand to observe our work and sometimes there may be a crowd of 20-30 men, women, and children. The community usually pitches in to help us with our conservation work by carrying buckets of water up and down the stairs, cleaning large, simple pieces of the organ, taking out the garbage, and leaving the choir loft in order at the end of the day.



We take advantage of the opportunity to tell them about the organ, how it works, other organs in Oaxaca and the IOHIO, and we ask them questions about their community. They in turn always want to know if the organ can be fixed, how much will it cost, and who will pay for it. The most satisfying moment of the day is when we “present” the organ to the community in an improved, more dignified state. Sometimes the change may be dramatic, and the people are amazed by the beauty of the organ and the unexpected link to the world of their ancestors. This we hope will be the best guarantee that the organ will be safe and properly respected until our next visit.


Documentation >