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Sounding the Pacific

The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

Sounding the Pacific

Musical Instruments of Oceania

November 17, 2009–January 23, 2011

Music is a universal human phenomenon. Musical instruments and musical expression, however, take an almost infinite variety of forms throughout the world. This is especially true in Oceania (the Pacific Islands) whose more than 1,800 different peoples create an astonishing diversity of musical instruments, from familiar types such as drums, flutes, and the Hawaiian 'ukulele, to unusual forms such as slit gongs carved in the form of ancestral catfish, bullroarers whose eerie whirring sounds are said to be the voices of supernatural beings, and delicate stringed instruments with sounding chambers fashioned from palm leaves. From the tropical rain forests of Island Southeast Asia to the deserts of Australia to remote coral atolls, musical instruments in Oceania play central roles in activities ranging from religious rituals and initiations, to feasts, celebrations, courting, and secular entertainment.

This exhibition—the first in an art museum to be devoted exclusively to Oceanic musical instruments—explores the rich diversity of musical instruments created and used in the Pacific Islands. Drawn primarily from the Metropolitan’s collections, the exhibition features more than fifty instruments from small personal types such as panpipes and courting whistles to larger forms played at performances heard by the entire community, such as the exquisitely carved temple drums of the Austral Islands or the imposing sacred slit gongs of New Guinea.