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Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology


19th or 20th century
West Africa

"I love music, so when I discovered a lost balafon (xylophone) key I was determined to find its home. I located a balafon missing a key, slotted my key into the gap, checked the pitching with a tap, and it matched! You can see it here, third from the left."

Eleanor Beestin-Sheriff

Pitch Perfect

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Usually when we work with objects, we start with the whole thing in front of us. In this case, I only had a small part that had become detached and found its way into an unprovenanced box, where the museum keeps objects without a clear place of origin. The part I found was a key from a balafon, a type of xylophone with gourd resonators that originates in West Africa. I decided to try and reunite the key with the rest of the instrument, so I checked all of the African xylophones in the collection for any that were missing pieces. I got out several that were missing keys, and tried slotting the key into each gap, Cinderella-style, until I found one that seemed to fit. I gave the keys a tap and the tone and pitching matched, so I knew I had found the right one!


I love this object because it perfectly illustrates its own story – you can see that the key that went missing looks slightly different from the rest of the instrument; it is darker and shinier. This reflects their different storage conditions. The balafon was on a shelf in a clear bag, so it was more exposed to dust and light than the key, which was in a box. Now that the key has been reunited with the rest of the balafon, its appearance will slowly change, until you can no longer tell that they were ever separated.

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Eleanor Beestin-Sheriff - Collections Assistant (Stores Move)


Eleanor (BA, MA) has a background in History and Museum Studies. She is interested in how museum collections can be made more accessible, and has co-authored a publication about how 3D printing and virtual reality can be used to facilitate visitor engagement with museum objects. In her current role she is documenting, photographing and packing collections at MAA’s off-site stores, ready for the move to the new Centre of Material Culture.

Two million years of human history. One million artefacts. Countless astonishing stories.