Sounding the Pacific: Musical Instruments of Oceania, the first exhibition devoted to the subject ever mounted by an art museum, will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 17. Featuring more than 50 outstanding works—including percussion, wind, and string instruments—the exhibition will explore not only the diverse forms of Oceanic musical instruments but also the many different roles they play, or played, in Pacific cultures, from announcing the onset of war to embodying the voices of supernatural beings or softly enticing a lover.
Drawn entirely from the Museum’s collection, the exhibition will showcase the objects that were created and used from the early 19th to the late 20th-century in all five regions of Oceania: Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Australia, and Island Southeast Asia. The works on view will include many instruments whose forms are unique to the Pacific, ranging from small flutes and whistles used for private entertainment or courtship, to massive slit gongs played in performances heard by entire communities, where the thundering beats can carry for miles.
Musical instruments and musical expression take an almost infinite variety of forms throughout the world. This is especially true in the Pacific Islands, whose more than 1,800 different peoples create an astonishing variety of musical instruments. They vary from familiar forms such as drums, flutes, and the Hawaiian ukulele, to unusual types such as slit gongs carved in the form of massive ancestral catfish, friction drums whose otherworldly sound is likened to the cry of a bird, and flutes that are played with the nose rather than the mouth. From the tropical rainforests of Island Southeast Asia, to the Australian outback, to remote coral atolls, musical instruments in Oceania are played to accompany all aspects of life including the most sacred religious rituals and initiations, feasts, celebrations, courtship, and casual entertainment.
The works on view will include the sesando from the Indonesian Island of Timor, an instrument resembling the opening bud of a flower. Sesando music is said to have magical properties and was typically used to accompany songs in bini, as special poetic language that often emphasized the poignant and fleeting nature of human life. One of the earliest examples of Hawaiian ukulele, probably dating to the late 19th-century, will also be on view—it was made only a few years after the ancestral form of the instrument, a small guitar, was initially introduced to Hawai’i in 1879 by Portuguese settlers.
The wind instruments featured in the exhibition will demonstrate different forms. Among them are a more than six-foot-long sacred flute (or fu) made by the Murik people of New Guinea, and trumpets carved in the form of stylized human figures made by the Asmat people of New Guinea. An intricately decorated nose flute from the Fiji Islands will also be included in the exhibition. Played by holding one nostril shut and blowing into the instrument with the other, it produced a soft, plaintive sound used for relaxation or by courting couples.
The percussion section of the exhibition will present a rare sacred slit gong (or waken) carved in the form of a giant ancestral catfish with projecting crocodile-like jaws. This object, made by the Iatmul people of New Guinea, was part of an ensemble of secret instruments known only to initiated men; it was sounded during rituals, in which the gongs might be played continuously for months on end—each successive player seized the gong beater from the moving hand of his predecessor so that the rhythm remained unbroken. Also on view will be a tall, elegant drum from the Austral Islands adorned with stylized female figures. The beauty of Austral Island drums was so greatly admired that, in pre-European times, they were occasionally exported to Tahiti, some four hundred miles away, by voyaging canoes.
Sounding The Pacific is organized by Eric Kjellgren, the Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, in consultation with J. Kenneth Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, and Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, of the Department of Musical Instruments, all of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition and its related programs will be featured in the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org
Image: Drum. Carved by Omas, New Guinea, Papua Province, Asmat people, Pomatsj River, Sauwa village. Mid 20th century Wood, lizard skin, paint, fiber. H: 22 3/4 in. (57.8 cm) The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection; Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mrs. Mary C. Rockefeller, 1965. 1978.412.962. DP108321