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Instruments as Objects in Ethnomusicological Museum Learning

By Katherine Palmer


The Society for Ethnomusicology’s 63rd Annual Meeting recently took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As co-chair of the SEM Education Section and curator of education at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, it gave me a chance to reflect on the importance that objects (i.e. musical instruments) and participatory music making play in my own approach to education. Timothy Rice gave an educational keynote address, “My Life in Music Education,” that posed eight short stories and reflective questions about his personal experiences in ethnomusicology, music education, and higher education music curriculums. (see image below)

During this address, I was drawn to many of the questions Dr. Rice posed, including:

Question 4: How do we teach all music educators, and not just those dedicated to the principle of multicultural music education, to value all music not just one kind of music?

Question 6: How can ethnomusicologists intervene in music curricula not simply by insisting on adding courses in “world music” but by changing the core content and values of traditional courses and curricula developed principally to European classical music?

I also posed my own question: “What do we lose as musicians, educators, and researchers, when we only focus on WEAM (Western European Art Music)?” Repeatedly, I was struck by the pivotal role musical instruments could represent in educating others, not just for the sake of music education but also for advocacy of cultural awareness, understanding, and empathy. When we make abstract concepts like world music tangible through instruments, we’re able to increase participants’ understandings of musical function, social context, and significance. Additionally, when world music participants are able to “do” or “create” world music, we can begin to demystify the sound structures that accompany listening examples. As John Carlos Perea (San Francisco State University) said in response, “[We need students to] be comfortable with sounds so they can begin to understand them.”

My work at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) involves fusing best practices in museum education, community music, and ethnomusicology in a way that makes world music approachable to a variety of audiences, including early childhood (ages 0–5) and K-12 youth, MIM volunteers, and local educators. Instruments provide a vehicle for object-based learning and hands-on music making to take place, which has become a powerful connection for our education guests. Making musical instruments accessible and tangible through music making has become a dynamic tool for all guests to begin to construct meaning, assign identity, and take ownership of their educational experiences at MIM. In the remainder of this blog, I will discuss the significance that instruments play (pun intended) in the MIMkids youth programs.


The MIMkids suite includes early childhood music and movement classes for children and caregivers (Mini Music Makers for ages 0–5), interdisciplinary musical classes where children build musical instruments (Musical Adventures for ages 6–10), and a program called Junior Museum Guides (grades 6–12) where youth develop skills to deliver self-constructed tours of the galleries and facilitate family-friendly music making sessions. In all of these classes, young guests (and sometimes their caregivers) explore music making, culture, and ethnomusicology through musical instruments.

In the images above, Mini Music Makers participants explore the sounds of Balinese gamelan anklung instruments during a portion of class I like to call “Baby Gam Jam.” While each session varies based on children’s interests and needs, we’ve created a new soundscape in our baby (0-18mos), toddler (18mos-3yrs), and preschool (3-5yrs) classes by playing these four-note metallophones. From basic exploration to creating their own compositions, both children and caregivers begin to understand Balinese gamelan while also gaining an appreciation for diverse music making.

In Musical Adventures, each class is themed around a certain geographic region. Youth make music, explore maps and MIM’s Geo-Galleries, and build a musical instrument to take home with them. In the images pictured below, Musical Adventures participants explored Indian music and crafted a gopi yantra, a folk instrument from Northern India. They learned a Hindi lullaby, “Nini Baba Nini,” while playing instruments from MIM’s education collection, and studied some of the basic differences between Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian) Classical music.

At the conclusion of the class, we attempted to sing the lullaby while accompanying ourselves by plucking our gopi yantra. As my colleague, Nathan Botts, and I have written about in a forthcoming article about the significance of tangible takeaways in a museum setting, we measure the success of our youth programs in smiles, engagement, and retention numbers. That being said, we’re finding that regular Musical Adventures participants are able to articulate deep thoughts regarding cultural diversity and understanding based on their experiences.

Junior Museum Guides (JMGs) use musical instruments as inspiration for their gallery tours, which are themed around MIM’s signature events, and as a way to engage general guests in music making. Instruments provide deep conversations about the significance of music making in cultures, the importance of materials in instrument construction, and a way to have fun through communal musicking (pictured below).


As I listened to Dr. Rice’s stories and well-reasoned questions, I couldn’t help but to wonder what if more youth had more access to diverse instruments for music making and ethnomusicological investigation. How could studying instruments through object-based learning change people’s perspectives about music study, and more importantly, the world? How could instruments drive the change so many of us who straddle academic work and public-facing ethnomusicology want to see in higher education? MIM will celebrate its tenth anniversary in April 2020, and while it is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle, I look forward to learning more about how musical instruments help youth create deeper relationships with music and the world around them.


Botts, Nathan and Katherine Palmer. In Publication. “Musical Adventures: Extending the

Museum through Interdisciplinary Educational Programming and Tangible Takeaways.” In Curator: The Museum Journal. Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Higgins, Lee. 2012. Community Music: In Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University


Rice, Timothy. 2018. “My Life in Music Education.” Society for Ethnomusicology 63rd Annual

Meeting. Education Section Forum. 15 November 2018. Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Simon, Nina. 2010. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0.

Solis, Ted. 2004. Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music.

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown,

CT: Wesleyan University Press.


Katherine Palmer enjoys a multifaceted musical career and works as a performing musician, educator, and arts administrator. Katherine is the curator of education at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, where she is in charge of developing, teaching, and training others to deliver ethnomusicological education content. She is the Executive Director of Daraja Music Initiative (DMI), a non-profit organization that provides music and conservation education in Tanzania. Aiming to bridge the arts and sciences, DMI promotes sustainability of African Blackwood trees that instruments are constructed from. Katherine is passionate about arts-integration, world music pedagogy and object-based museum education.


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