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DBL: Exhibition Histories






Percival Kirby

Date Created





The Kirby collection, housed in the South African College of Music, UCT consists of more than 600 musical instruments, most of which were used in southern Africa before 1934, many pre-dating urbanization. Starting as early as 1923, the Scottish historian and musicologist, Percival Kirby, then Professor of Music at the University of the Witwatersrand (and a colleague of Raymond Dart), observed the music cultures of indigenous South Africans through a series of field trips conducted during university vacations (Nixon in Kirby 2013: ix). He collected these instruments and categorised them using a Western system for classifying musical instruments and the principles on which they were based. Stipulating three categories (percussion - ‘rattles and clappers’, ‘drums’, ‘xylophones and sansas’, and ‘bull-roarers and spinning-disks’; wind instruments – ‘horns and trumpets’, ‘whistles, flutes, and vibrating reeds’ and ‘reed flute ensembles’; and stringed instruments) these divisions and their subsequent curation in the SACM encourages a ‘comparative’ viewing framework. Comparative displays were very popular in anthropology in the 19th and early 20th century and grouping objects sourced from various communities worldwide according to ‘type’ in relation to western versions served to enforce ideas of Social Darwinism, depicting a scale of development from what was viewed as ‘primitive’ objects to the more evolved Western versions.

Is Part Of

South African College of Music


Page from Kirby, P. 1934. Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa . Third edition. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.