Call for Papers: Musical Instruments and Material Culture Conference

Full details can be found here.

A conference to be held jointly by the Horniman Museum and Gardens and the Royal Anthropological Institute.

An interdisciplinary conference linking organology, the study of musical instruments, with anthropology through the subject of musical instruments as objects of material culture, viewed holistically to consider aspects ranging from their manufacture to the cultural values they embody.

While musical instruments are the primary medium for transmitting the intangible culture of music they are also grounded in material culture. They require specialist techniques and skills of manufacture that have been subject to adaptation, as supplies of hardwoods and other materials of which instruments were traditionally made become depleted and the potential of new materials is explored and exploited. Musical instruments reflect cultural values ranging from current fashion to belief systems. Although those who document musical instruments aspire to capture wide a range of information relating to the material and intangible culture of instruments, their symbolism, magical power, status, and the rituals involved in the manufacture of instruments remain to be quantified, a course proposed by Mantle Hood (2/1982).

Musical Instruments are frequently anthropomorphised, to the extent that they are assigned a gender, and individual (‘The Messiah’) or generic (‘Tina’, ‘Joanna’) proper names, while the names of their components may be predicated on the model of the human body, and in the case of the soundpost, the soul (l’âme – [Fr.] ). The innate anthropomorphism that permeates thinking about musical instruments leads to an instinctive revulsion to the notion of their ‘voices’ being silenced in museum collections, and to one of the tenets of good museum practice:  in order to remain immutable, some instruments should be forever mute.

The conference will take place in the Pavilion of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and will be held in collaboration with the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Horniman’s Music Gallery displays a collection of around 1,600 musical instruments from many different countries, and has a room full of instruments for visitors to play.


Papers are sought with a focus on the following:

  • Cultural values, collectivised memories and environmental concerns as manifest in the performance, production, recycling , abandonment or destruction of musical instruments
  • Musical instruments and status – the status of gender, social hierarchy
  • Musical instruments and meaning
  • Determinants of diffusion in musical instruments and their sounds
  • Epistemological aspects of the documentation of musical instruments by museums
  • The instrument as material culture during the processes of learning and passing on musical skills

Abstracts of 500 words should be emailed to

Please include name, affiliation, postal address, email address, and AV requirements on a separate cover sheet. Papers will be of 20 minutes duration, with 10 minutes for questions.

The closing date for receipt of proposals 15th November 2014. All those submitting proposals will be notified of the outcome by 3rd December 2014.