More than Music: Collecting Kun Opera

5 minute read

There is music in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Well, there is and there isn’t. Museums have traditionally acquired, exhibited, and interpreted artefacts: tangible things. Intangible aspects of human cultural life and wellbeing such as music don’t generally get collected except in their material manifestations as musical instruments.

An exhibition of musical instruments in a gallery at MAA. There are two display cases, one on the left in the foreground and one on the right in the background. A banner hangs from the ceiling with the name of the exhibition and an illustration.

Figure 1: A view of the exhibition, More than Music: Collecting Kun Opera, in the Spotlight Gallery. MAA, 2019.

In 2019 MAA hosted a small exhibition on music from China, More Than Music: Collecting Kun Opera, curated by Zilan Wang and I. Building on collaborations between MAA and the Cambridge Rivers Project with museums, performing and visual artists in China, and the UK, this exhibition was an opportunity to showcase objects rarely seen and stories rarely told, as well as to think about the place of music, and the performing arts, or their traces, in the collections at MAA.

The Chinese musical instruments at MAA began arriving in Cambridge in 1902, with a series of whistles and rattles collected by Ronald Livett and Alfred Cort Haddon. Later came a lute from the Reverend Garden Blaikie, a flute from Professor Wynfrid L. H. Duckworth, a flute played by the Miao people in Yunnan from Reverend Captain William H. Hudspeth in 1927 and another from Herbert E. Bolton in 1940.

A wooden pipe with three pairs of pipe stuck horizontally through the head of its shaft.

Figure 2: 𖬀𖬰𖬦𖬵 (qeej), a pipe comprising three pairs of reed pipes stuck horizontally through the head of a shaft. Miao peoples. Huao Li Nah, Yunnan, China. Collected and donated by Reverend William H. Hudspeth. MAA 1927.1692.

The majority, however, were purchased for the Museum in 1977 from the noted ethnomusicologist Lawrence Picken. Trained as a zoologist, Picken began research in traditional Chinese music in 1944 and throughout his career collected musical instruments from across Asia and Europe, as well as Africa and the Americas. His collection includes over 700 musical instruments from Brazil, Bermuda, USA, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Slovenia, Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia, Spain, Russia, Romania, Portugal, France, Britain, Ireland, Norway, Hungary, Greece, Denmark, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Tibet, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan and mainland China.

A collage of two images showing the front and back of a lute. The image on the left shows the front and the image on the right shows the back. At the bottom of the back of the lute are inscribed three Chinese characters.

Figure 3. 琵琶 (pipa) or a lute. On the reverse are Chinese characters inlaid with mother of pearl: 云中鹤 (yun zhong he, Crane flying in the clouds) – the name given to this 琵琶 (pipa). Gift of Liang Zaiping to Laurence Picken. MAA 1977.284.

Picken was, first and foremost, interested in music. His archive, a rich collection of musical scores, is cared for by the Cambridge University Library and is regularly consulted by scholars and musicians. In his collection of musical instruments, which he acquired himself on his travels or through friends and colleagues, he was not looking for beautiful, old, or well-made things: he was interested in music, and his collection is hugely varied, from plastic whistles to elaborate antique zithers.

A flute, the end pieces of which are carved from bone and have some illustrations on them.

Figure 4. 笛 (di) or a side blown, open flute traditionally played in 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). The end piece carved from bone is engraved with a scene of two scholars conversing in a landscape under a cloudy sky, and the other with a cloud, an orchid and a butterfly. China. Laurence Picken Collection. MAA 1977.250.

Over time, the collection has been continually repurposed. Originally made to be played and listened to in China, when these instruments were brought to Europe, they were regularly lent out to students and performers in Cambridge. As museum artefacts, now distant from musicians or their audiences, they have become something else: material things that offer opportunities for western scholars and viewers to better understand China. These are not just instruments: they bear symbols like the lucky cloud, the bat, or the phoenix; they can show us fragments of Chinese art and tell stories from mythology and literature as well as daily life.

The latest transformation of these instruments is in an initiative to preserve and document one of the oldest forms of Chinese Opera: 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). The Digital Kun Opera Museum, launched in 2016, has brought together sources from museum collections, art, and popular culture in Britain and China. Already more than music, the complex artform of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) has become an inspiration for artists and students in China, Cambridge, and worldwide.

A man and a woman are standing in a loose embrace, facing each other. The woman is wearing pink traditional costume with flowers in blue illustrated on it. She is also wearing an intricate headdress. The man is wearing a light yellowish traditional costume with flowers illustrated in green. He is also wearing a headdress, but less intricate.

Figure 5: Ms. Gong Yinlei and Mr. Qian Zhenrong from the Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Theatre at King’s College, Cambridge, September 2016.

昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) is one of the oldest forms of Chinese Opera. Developed some 600 years ago at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in the eastern city of Kunshan, it was the dominant form of Chinese theatre from the 16th to 18th centuries and has been called the “mother of traditional Chinese Operas”.

昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) is known for its lyrical performances, with melodious singing and graceful movement. The accompanying orchestra can be large, but the essential instruments are the bamboo flute, 笙 (sheng), 三弦 (sanxian) and 琵琶 (pipa) lutes. After declining in importance in the 19th century, it has more recently seen a revival, and in 2008 was inscribed on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Small paper cut characters are standing on a glass shelf of a display case.

Figure 6: 戏曲人物 (xiqu renwu). Paper cut-outs of characters from Chinese literature and opera. In the foreground is Nein Ching Feng, ‘a filial daughter who when her mother was sick went into the sea for medicine’. China, 20th century. Collection of Edmund Leach. Donated by Lady Celia Leach. MAA 1991.38.

The Kun Opera Digital Museum was conceived with the intention of taking 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) beyond the stage, and beyond the bricks and mortar museum.

MAA cares for one of the largest collections of its kind in the UK, with more than one million artefacts, photographs, paintings, prints and drawings from every inhabited continent and almost every period in human history and prehistory. This includes more than 80,000 artefacts and 50,000 photographs from Asia, and a rich archive charting Cambridge’s role in archaeological and anthropological research across the continent. The stories these objects can tell are of importance to communities, scholars and publics worldwide as well as in Britain, illuminating the diversity of human experience and creativity, and the complex shared histories of cross-cultural encounters in the past and in the present that MAA is committed to telling.

The last decade has seen greater engagement with the material heritage of Asian peoples in the museum’s collection, reaching new audiences and forging new relationships as well as finding out more about the collections we care for. 50% of the anthropology collections from Asia are now photographed and accessible online. We are grateful to the Cambridge Rivers Project, their partners and supporters for committing to this work, and we look forward to continuing to explore the rich collections of the Museum, and to finding innovative ways to activate the heritage in our care.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with us

If you'd like to get involved, then please get in touch with us at

About the Museum

Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Downing Street
+44 (0)1223 333516

Visit the MAA Website
Search the Collections


Follow us


If you wish to donate online, then please go to the University of Cambridge campaign webpage.




Subscribe to receive notifications when we post new blog entries: