Percival Kirby Collection (Colonial Music Archive)

Cape Town, South Africa
Archives (Recorded music archives)


Lisa Diamond
Tel: +27216502626


Cape Town
South Africa

The Percival Kirby Collection (Colonial Music Archive) is a collection of colonial music archives which contains the native Races of South Africa. Housed at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the collection has a book which was published by Oxford University Press in 1934 and it 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 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 mold. However, the University 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 Manuscripts and Archives section where the images were digitised. The images and his papers speak of Kirby’s interests beyond music, which his publications also attest to. Unfortunately, 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 is bent on 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 way in which the collection is curated currently is refreshing and the typical 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.).

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