Years later, when he became a music curator at the Smithsonian in 1966, Weaver made the instruments in the museums sing. During his four decades at the what is now the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Institution’s performing arts department, he brought in musicians, storytellers, and dancers, and used the museum’s collection of more than 5,000 instruments to re-create historical music.
“People would come to the American History museum and there were two or three things they wanted to see — the flag, the first ladies’ gowns and Dorothy’s slippers,” said Howard Bass, a lute player who worked with Weaver at the Museum of American History. Weaver also pushed his colleagues to “make a museum a living place” full of sound and movement.
He was 82 when he died of covid-19 in April after contracting the coronavirus.
Weaver brought together nine musicians in 1976 to create the Chamber Music Society, an ensemble in residence at the museum. The group toured the country and brought to life meticulously constructed performances on instruments that dated to the early 1600s. At that time, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach were still mostly played on piano — an instrument the composer would have never seen.
Visiting interns at the museum were once shocked to see curators taking historical pieces out of their cases and playing them.
Weaver, for his part, was a talented player of the organ; fortepiano, an early piano; and the harpsichord, which had its heyday from 1600 to 1800. He recorded Bach’s sonatas written for violin and harpsichord, and conducted the first recorded performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” in America to use historical instruments.
While Weaver’s expertise was in baroque and early Classical music, his interests were wide ranging. Working with performing arts at the Smithsonian and later leading the division on music and culture at the Museum of American History, he helped bring American musical theater, jazz, hip-hop, folk music and early electric guitars into the museum. He was also involved in the community, as an organist and choir master for several D.C. and Maryland churches.
“He had one foot in the classical camp and one foot in the popular camp,” said Kenneth Slowik, the curator of the musical instrument collection at the Museum of American History.
His wide-ranging interests, which stood out even in a museum full of curious intellectuals, gave Weaver an ability to talk to anyone. Slowik describes him as an “omnivorous extrovert” who was “a great schmoozer, in the good sense of the term.” He kept a tuxedo ready to go in case of any last-minute invites.
He was a beloved boss, the type who gave his colleagues wide space to pursue their ideas. But he also wasn’t afraid to dive into the details of a project to help push it forward. He once accompanied Marvette Perez, the late curator of Latino history at the museum, to Puerto Rico to pick up and prepare a collection of artifacts for a project on Latino history.
“ ‘No’ was not really part of Jim’s vocabulary. The question was ‘how,’ ” said Slowik, who is also the artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society that Weaver founded. In the massive bureaucracy of the museum, Weaver would “find those open spaces and make something big happen, like an acorn cracking through.” He was known as a mentor to aspiring musicians and curators.
After winding down his role in the museum in the early 2000s, Weaver became the director of the Organ Historical Society. He also spent nearly eight years working with the Federal City Council, an influential nonprofit that promotes development in Washington, to push for the creation of a museum of music. It was one of his rare efforts that did not pan out.
After more than five decades in the Washington area, Weaver moved with his husband, Samuel Baker, to Rochester, N.Y., last year. It was there that he caught the coronavirus in April. After a visit to the doctor, he was admitted to the hospital, where his condition deteriorated rapidly. He died April 16.
One of the hardest things, according to close friends, is that, because of social distancing restrictions, they cannot get together to commemorate his life with the music that he so loved.