People in their Worlds exhibition

Is music universal?

Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Bonn is having a new permanent exhibition titled People in Their Worlds – the museum has moved to a new building four years ago and this has made a good opportunity to reformulate the exhibition.
Its anthropological collection encompasses 7,000 objects from Africa, Asia, The Islands of Southeast, Oceania, and America, which might seem fairly conventional. Nevertheless, the approach that is being now presented is truly innovative: instead of offering a view of the objects of the different cultures in their specific habitats, it delivers a comparative cultural approach. The visitor is invited to engage by taking several issues that are debated in Western society and these are then putted into perspective near several other cultures. Ultimately, by starting from an European point, visitors can easily gain insights into other worlds and mainly understand the relative vantage and value of Western culture. The overriding aim is thus to emphasise the equality and validity of all cultures.

The theme-based presentation People in their Worlds welcomes visitors with a prologue and takes leave of them at the end with an epilogue. In between there are the two associated theme complexes Comprehending the World and Shaping the World, each covering several topics. The path is delivered through groundbreaking design, innovative media displays, striking scenography, and textual boxes, and seeks to enable the visitor to immerse himself in individual outstanding experience.

I was truly impressed, absorbed and aesthetically fascinated during my visit, but then within texts panels I find the sentence: Music is the common language of humanity. And this was like when you get to know for the first time that enchanted princes do not exist.
There is no such contested idea by music studies as this one since at least 60 years ago. It is really curious that an exhibition that is specifically striving to reveal how prejudices serve to integrate the ‘other’ into one’s own world view and to draw a line between oneself and the ‘other’, has ended up controverting its own purpose by means of presenting a Western ethnocentric understanding.

First of all, to precisely define what music is turns out to be unreasonable except on the basis of each specific social context: and, ultimately, music studies know a lot of the music of some cultures but fairly nothing about several others to raise such a conclusion. Furthermore, as Bruno Nettl has discussed, both a stringent search for specific features that all ‘musics’ of the world might have in common and a search for a conceptual framework able to subsume all imaginable differences ended up impossible. Of course many traits are shared and that an unknown music is more prone to be ‘readily understood’ than an unknown language, but this does not assure a common domain of practice, value and reception.

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