Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Kennedy's Mandolin played in the Trenches

Alice Little

1940.9.21 Kennedy's Mandolin, played in the trenches

1940.9.21 Kennedy's Mandolin, played in the trenches

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, there is a mandolin made in the early years of the twentieth century [accession number 1940.9.21]. It is an English instrument, made before 1914, and once owned by Arthur A Kennedy, a music teacher who joined the army and played this mandolin in the trenches of the First World War. Upon his return to England he had the names of the battles in which he had fought painted down its side. At some point the mandolin was put into storage and, with the strings left at high tension, an ugly crack formed down the belly of the instrument. In 1940 Kennedy donated it to the Pitt Rivers, where it now rests in the 'Lutes' case in the main court of the Museum.

At the turn of the twentieth century the popularity of the mandolin soared, both as an instrument for accompanying singing and in more classically-oriented mandolin orchestras. Orville Gibson led the way in mandolin manufacture, his A-style selling in America for $12 as a cheap morale-booster. These mandolins were flat-backed with teardrop-shaped faces, oval sound-holes and plain heads. Despite their simple construction they produced a surprisingly good tone from their four courses of strings (usually tuned G, D, A, E), and the flat back made them both louder than the bowl-shaped Neapolitan models and easier to hold on the lap.

Arthur's instrument (which bears no maker's label) has a different shape to its face, but the fact that it has a flat back like the mandolins of Gibson's design suggests that this mandolin was intended to serve a similar purpose. Arthur played his mandolin for other people, probably for sing-along sessions in the mess and even in the trenches themselves. The instrument bears testament to its frequent use, its neck well worn in the place where his thumb would have rested, and the front scratched from the movement of the plectrum.

This mandolin has attracted a lot of attention since moving to the Pitt Rivers, and has featured in two special exhibitions: Instruments of War in 1988-9 and Objects Talk in 2002-3. It is an object that has stimulated many people to think and to remember and has generated a lot of reactions, some of which were recorded for Objects Talk and can be seen in the Museum's catalogue entry for this object. The sections below will develop some of these reflections and consider how Arthur's identities as a civilian musician and WWI soldier were shaped by his mandolin.

Arthur: his Mandolin and his Identity

Looking at this mandolin in its display case, many visitors are drawn to the painted words down its right shoulder: Peronne, Somme, Hermies, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Asiage, Piave. People are amazed that a soldier should take such a delicate instrument on to a battlefield (let alone seven of them) and moreover that it should return unscathed. Kennedy's mandolin captures the imagination and if you stop to listen you will frequently hear visitors commenting, 'To think it came through!' or 'Could tell some good stories, that one.'

However, there is more to see even than this. If you peer through the sound hole of the mandolin using a torch, it is possible to see a scrap of newspaper; pasted on at an angle, as if the person who put it there was finding it difficult to manoeuvre past the strings. Pressing your nose to the glass of the case, you might just be able to read the following:

ARTHUR A KENNEDY Mandolin, Banjo and Guitar Teacher was Minstrel to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry: England 1913, France 1916, Belgium 1917, Italy 1918

The newspaper must have been put there after 1918, presumably by Arthur himself after he returned home, perhaps at the same time as the list of battles was painted on the side. Its style, giving him an unofficial title of 'Minstrel' and making no mention of his battalion or rank, suggests that it comes from a local newspaper.

This little scrap of paper led me to speculate that this mandolin meant more to Arthur than a simply functional tool or toy. If it was not already clear from the painted place names that this mandolin was important to its owner, this little piece of paper adds a new dimension to our interpretation of his experience of war. Like those words it identifies the mandolin with someone's journey, but unlike the soldier's history which might apply to anyone in his battalion, the newspaper names him, and additionally gives him a new identity - Minstrel of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. Taking the object as a whole, therefore, it is not just a statement that Arthur Kennedy was a music teacher who became a soldier - this is the instrument that made him both: that made him Minstrel of the trenches.

The Mandolin at War and at Home

Arthur took his mandolin to war to play. It had a function as a musical instrument and was well used, as revealed by the worn patch on the neck where his thumb rested and the scratches on the front from the plectrum. In addition the mandolin may have served a psychological purpose, reminding Arthur of his civilian days as a music teacher, denying the generic identity imposed upon him by his military possessions. Other people must also have regarded him differently, labelling him a musician as well as a soldier. Such an item was bound up with its owner and this interaction allowed him to negotiatehis identity, both as a musician during the War - and also as a soldier after 1918.

Upon his return to England the mandolin took on a new layer of meaning as a result of its decoration. Rather than reminding him of pre-war life, it became a memento of the Great War, celebrating his survival as well as commemorating the fact that the mandolin had also come through. Out of uniform Kennedy thus preserved his wartime identity by downloading his memories into this object, objectifying his past - perhaps in an attemptto make it past.

As a consequence, just as the mandolin helped him to combine his pre-war and wartime identities, so Arthur had an effect upon his mandolin. Through decoration it has become more than an instrument: it is the mandolin that was played at the campaigns named on its shoulder. The mandolin and Arthur are thus inextricably linked: it helping him to negotiate his own identity and him in turn shaping the object's identity.

The Mandolin's Path into the Collection

Arthur donated his mandolin to the Museum in 1940 - twenty-two years after its last battle. The Museum catalogue tells us that in total Arthur donated five items (all musical instruments) to the Collection, the last of which arrived in 1945, after his death. While little is recorded of what happened to Arthur in between these dates it is possible to speculate using the clues he unwittingly imbued upon his mandolin.

In the years between the Battle of Piave in 1918 and the mandolin's accession in 1940, Arthur had moved on with his life: we know from the gash across the instrument's face that he no longer displayed his mandolin at home, for he failed to notice the body cracking under the tension of the strings. However, the fact that he decided to give it to a museum indicates that he still valued his mandolin, and wished for it (and its manifold meanings) to be preserved beyond his lifetime.

There are many thoughts that might have crossed Kennedy's mind. Perhaps he no longer needed this tangible reminder of his past experiences. Perhaps he did not want to think of the old war when a new one had just begun. Maybe it was only when the bombs began to fall in England that he remembered its existence at all; and having done so he wanted to remind people that there can be good times in a terrible war, and that people do survive.

Kennedy's 'disposal' of his instrument to the Pitt Rivers does not, therefore, indicate that the object had ceased to have meaning to him. In its museum setting it still succeeds in representing his wartime identity (both as soldier and musician) and adds a local dimension to an international event, represented in an international collection.

The Mandolin in the Museum

In the Museum the mandolin's meaning has changed yet again, and it has done so as a consequence of the very same factors that once made it special to Arthur. The beautiful painting down the side of the instrument indicates that Arthur himself considered his mandolin a trophy, recording and commemorating his achievements. This notion is confirmed by his unofficial job title hidden inside, and today is consolidated by its current position behind the glass of an exhibition case. This mandolin no longer conveys the music it might have shared with the other 'lutes' on display, but instead takes the observer's mind to the trenches of the First World War, just as it did for Arthur.

Material objects - whether in use or kept in a museum - allow us to ground the intangible in the material. For Arthur Kennedy it may have been the quiet times at home he wanted to recall by taking his mandolin with him to war, and it was perhaps the friends he lost that he wanted to commemorate by making his instrument into a trophy. The songs he sang, the sounds the mandolin made, his memories of performing on particular occasions and the experience of doing so in a war zone may be lost to us; but these memories and emotions are inscribed physically upon his mandolin, not only in its decoration but also in obvious signs of use and if we look carefully we might still be able to read them. Thus whilst Arthur Kennedy may be long gone, such feelings are brought back to life in people's minds every time someone looks at his mandolin in its case in the court of the Museum.

Further reading

For ease of reading, specific page references have been removed from the text itself.

Hecht, A. 2001. Home Sweet Home: Tangible Memories of An Uprooted Childhood. In Home Possessions (ed.) D. Miller, 123-148. Oxford: Berg.

Hetherington, K. 2004. Secondhandness: Consumption, Disposal, and Absent Presence. Society and Space 22, 157-73.

Marcoux, J. 2001. The 'Casser Maison' Ritual. Journal of Material Culture 6(2), 213-35

Miller, D. 1987. Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Parkin, D. 1999. Mementoes as Transitional Objects in Human Displacement. Journal of Material Culture 4(3), 303-320.

Saunders, N.J. 2004. Matters of Conflict: Material Culture, Memory and the First World War. London: Routledge

Saunders, N.J. 2004. The Ironic 'Culture of Shells' in the Great War and Beyond. In Materiel Culture: The Archaeology of Twentieth-Century Conflict (ed.s) J. Schofield, W.G. Johnson and C.M. Beck, 22-40. London: Routledge.