BRING IT ON HOME: A Decolonial Analysis of Musical Instruments in the Penn Museum
Social and Cultural Anthropology
In conversations focused on decolonizing institutional spaces like ethnographic museums, repatriation remains a contentious goal. Whether museums are willing to change their ethics and practices to relinquish these spoils is one issue, but poor documentation continues to severely hinder efforts of returning objects to source communities. As such, this project reflects on musical instruments in ethnographic archives and their unique representations of cultural heritage, using an ‘ukulele (29-58-122) from the Penn Museum’s collections as a case study. Investigating the provenance of this instrument and connecting it with the cultural significance of its construction (design, use, etc.) will create valuable discussions of cultural heritage and the disembodiment of objects from ancestral homes. This research interacts with literature on decoloniality and musical repatriation to understand how musical instruments convey cultural heritage. Imagining how instruments might be used as symbols of identity in the hands of their descendants is critical to connecting music with cultural repatriation. The ongoing work of musical repatriation in museum contexts should rethink how these objects are cared for, recognizing them beyond artifacts. By taking insight from musicians or other specialists, museums can begin to treat instruments as objects that “breathe” and allow them to keep producing culture.