Hand Drum

Middle Sepik River
Papua New Guinea


20th century

Wood, lizard skin, resin, beeswax, and pigment

Overall: 18 1/8 × 5 7/8 in. (46 × 15 cm)

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Harry A. Franklin Family Collection



Place Made: Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, Oceania


20th century

Object Name

Musical Instrument

Research Area


Not on view


Hand Drums (kundu in Tok Pisin)

In traditional New Guinea societies, hand drums were the most important musical instrument, used in nearly every public ritual. The power of the drumming and singing intensified the emotional response to ceremonial events. In nearly every New Guinea society, the rhythmic beating of the drum represents the spirits of one powerful supernatural being or another. Throughout the Sepik River region, drums are understood to be the voices of the spirits, who intervene in and control human lives and prosperity. In that region, hand drums often bear design elements that associate them with crocodiles, to capture symbolically the power of these large and dangerous creatures—the only dangerous animals in New Guinea. If hungry or provoked, they stalk, kill, and eat unwitting people who happen near their territories.

The body of the drum is made of tropical hardwood, hollowed out by carving and burning. The tympanum (drum head) is made from the skin of an iguana lizard, attached to the wooden drum with tree sap resin that serves as glue, and wrapped with a plaited rattan band. Most older drums have lost their tympanum and rattan bands. To tune the drum to the correct pitch, drummers soften three to five small round lumps of beeswax by warming them over a campfire, and attach them to the drum head, lowering or raising the pitch from the loosening or tightening of the lizard skin.

Variations in size, shape, and design indicate differences from one village or ethnic group’s style to another.

From the 2019 exhibition Melanesian Art: The Sepik River and Abelam Hill Country, curated by Robert Welsch, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Franklin Pierce University

Exhibition History

Changing Traditions in Pacific Art, Harrington Gallery Teaching Exhibition, Anthropology 38, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, September 7-November 10, 2002.

Melanesian Art: The Sepik River and Abelam Hill Country, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, January 26-December 8, 2019.


Acquired by Harry A. Franklin (1903-1983), Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s; bequeathed to the Harry A. Franklin Family Collection, Los Angeles, California, 1983; lent to present collection, 1990; given to present collection, 1997.

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