Honours in Curatorship student Sinazo Chiya examines The Kirby Collection

The Kirby collection housed at the University of Cape Town’s music campus shows the tensions involved in the acquisition and maintenance of a collection of rare and delicate objects. The viewer gets to experience the negotiation between conceptualization and practice. With these antiquated but practical objects, the museumgoer weighs their need for gratification against the need for a latter generation to witness the experience they never had.

In the talk accompanying the class visit to the Kirby Museum, Niklas Zimmer highlighted the fact that archiving processes make forgetting admissible; having objects, artifacts and documents in a safe store lessens the imperative for continued engagement. And this dialectical relationship is visible when interacting with the Kirby Collection.

There is a visceral shift from the auditory to the visual with this collection. The death or silencing of the object is something museum and archiving practices seek to eliminate.  A misstep in curatorial practice can turn a museum into a publicly–accessible mausoleum. The objects in the Kirby collection are repositories of an auditory heritage, but in this space the experience is chiefly visual. The objects in the Kirby collection no longer speak with the voices of their origin. The visitor’s primary point of engagement is a visual interface. This interface is well polished. The drawers, panels and raised podiums are a pale pastel mint green that recurs throughout, fostering visual cohesion. The ultraviolet lighting designed to prevent light-damage accentuates the softness of the surroundings.

The bustle and energy of the campus does not extend to the museum. By necessity the environment is controlled to prevent the deterioration of the objects but this translates into a palpable stillness in the air. The space is tastefully arranged, making the space formidable, but not forbidding. Elegance and pragmatism present a united front.

As opposed to dividing objects by geography or ethnic origin, the instruments are organized by type. The space presents a set of regal harps at the front, and at the back, facing them, is a collection of drums. Various bells, shakers, wind instruments and fiddles stand in cliques, around the room. This kind of grouping highlights the unity between the instruments as opposed to the differences.

In a sentimental strain, to see recurring patterns and motifs between Venda, Xitsonga and Central African objects shows not only the universality of music but also the commonality of the human experience. In a country that had endorsed the creation of identities -both of the collective and the self- along the points of division, this archive points to a shared history of sound.

In this collection, the instruments are silent but with preservation they will last for generations. However, this complicated invitation is what needs to be interrogated; is this collection valid if the people who visit it will not be able to experience its significance?

Entry into this silent but elegant room provides illustration but it does not impart experience. The objects cannot be touched and so their sounds cannot resonate. The objects have migrated from the meanings that they were intended to have, it can be questioned whether or not they are the same objects in an ideological sense. A visitor of the Kirby collection walks away with their capacity to experience the sounds of their of their ancestors intact but unfulfilled. A major question raised, therefore, is whether this truncated experience is sufficient.