Biography of a Colonial Music Archive: The Percival Kirby Collection

  • Posted on October 27, 2010

Musicologist Percival Robson Kirby was born in Scotland in 1887 and graduated with a MA degree in philosophy and biology from the University of Aberdeen. After completing his studies at the Royal College of Music in London, he worked as Music Organiser at the Natal Education Department from 1914. In 1921, he joined the University of the Witwatersrand (then University College) in Johannesburg, tasked with founding a Music Department. Soon after his arrival in South Africa he began studying and recording the musical practices of South African people, and advocated that it be studied in detail in South African schools. His most intense period of research was in the 1930s, during when he went on field trips, aiming to collect a comprehensive selection of southern African musical instruments, recording the music on wax cylinders, and photographing and sometimes sketching what he observed. He retired after 33 years with the university.

In 1934 Kirby ’s magnum opus, The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa, was published by Oxford University Press; the book remains as a major reference on the subject. When Kirby relinquished curatorship of the collection in 1954, he loaned it to the Africana Museum, now Museum Africa, in Johannesburg. Kirby died in 1970, and in the early 1980s the collection was purchased by the University of Cape Town, and housed in the South African College of Music. In 1983 it was opened to the public by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In 2004, Michael Nixon a senior lecturer in the Ethnomusicology and African Music divisions at the university’s South African College of Music took over the collection. He found it in a dismal condition as the rooms it was stored in were damp with most of the collection covered in mould. However, the University had sourced funding from the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund, enabling Nixon and his team to embark on a project that was aimed at controlling the climate, fixing the exhibition space, conserving the instruments, making copies of selected instruments for performance, and developing an online catalogue.

Kirby’s documents, papers, and pictures from Museum Africa were sent to the University of Cape Town’s Manuscripts and Archives section where the images were digitised. The images and his papers speak of Kirby’s many interests beyond music, which his publications also attest to. Unfortunately, as Kirby noted, the wax cylinder recordings of his field work proved to be irreparably damaged and so the music was lost. According to Nixon, Kirby’s transcriptions of several performances in staff notation are also available and this may provide an opportunity to reconstruct the sound. A challenge is that the instruments are not restored for the production of music but have undergone very careful conservation to preserve them as historical artefacts. Although the auditory components of this collection have been lost, the collection has visual potency as it comprises field images as well as the actual instruments, and material spanning the many fields of Kirby’s interest. The next phase of the project will be making copies of the instruments, and developing the online catalogue.

The instruments in the Kirby collection, much like all other objects or artefacts that are kept in museums, form part of the colonial archive shaped by the advent of colonialism and also by the various institutions that are concerned with them. The biographies of the collector and the collection, including the methods that Kirby employed in collecting the instruments, his and subsequent curators’ perceptions of the people that made and used the instruments make up the subject of Michael Nixon’s doctoral research. This then reminded me of concepts introduced by Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Liebhammer during a panel discussion entitled “ethnologised pasts and their archival futures”. Hamilton and Liebhammer, seek to engage dominant theories wherein material objects were excluded from the archive and housed in museums, marking off regulated knowledge from uncontrolled knowledge. They proposed convening of scattered evidence; however, they have found that the museums are immobilised in this regard because of the political distaste for ethnological collections.

The collection activities of curators or of institutions need to be unpacked and this demands inter-institutional collaboration. In writing the biography of collections, one needs to understand that objects shape their contexts the same way that they are shaped by their contexts. The Kirby collection has travelled the country, and other parts of the African continent and the world, and has been shaped and in turn it shaped its various contexts. The objects were literally shaped by those who made them and may have influenced them in return. When the instruments were collected by Kirby during field work, he must have selected them for a particular reason, possibly the aesthetic aspect or may have fed his own curiosity as a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand. It is also said that he collected the objects for teaching purposes and was supported by Carnegie funding in this regard.

The way in which the collection is curated currently is refreshing and the typical “ethnic” classification is not respected. Instruments that are labelled “Venda”, “Tswana” and so on are placed alongside instruments from elsewhere in world. Categories are in terms of type of instrument (for example Xylophone, Aerophones, Drums etc.). This may be saying something about curation activities as well as institutional positions with regard to this collection. Kirby was an evolutionist and instruments went from primitive to sophisticated, as did people and music. He did put things side by side to show relationships between them and this arrangement was followed by Dr Hansen, Nixon’s predecessor. Judging from photographs; this was also pragmatic as the cases were the same ones Kirby used, and they shaped the display to a large extent. Nixon had the opportunity to redesign, guided by the idea of open storage. Accession numbers of Museum Africa were followed in the layout, with some changes for reasons of size, or choices about which instruments to display.

The Kirby collection is currently open to the public by appointment, and is available for research and teaching purposes.

Enquiries: Lisa Diamond
Tel: (021)6502626
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Xolelwa Kashe-Katiya is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform

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  • Hi
    Could you please let me know what sort of music they used to listen to in colonial africa? Was it maily opera? if so what was ” in fasion ” at the time? Any advise would be appreciated.
    Kind regards

    By MAT on 25/12/2010
  • Hi,

    Great, Musical instruments.

    Nice Work, Your blog is very useful information for me.

    Robert Britt

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