Jean Jenkins was born in Arkansas and studied anthropology and musicology in Missouri during the 1940s. In 1949 she arrived in Britain with her first husband, and continued her studies at the University of London, at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 1954 she joined the staff of the Horniman Museum in South London. During her time at the museum she built up the musical instrument collections from developing countries, conducted important fieldwork in Ethiopia (throughout the 1960s) and created a centre for ethnomusicology. Meanwhile she married her second husband and obtained a British passport in order to avoid being deported to the US for her trade union work. The marriage was dissolved in 1961. A strong-willed and energetic woman, during the 1960s and 1970s Jean Jenkins traveled extensively throughout Southern Europe, Asia and Africa. Among many other places, she visited Uganda (1966 and 68), Malaysia (1972), Indonesia (1973) Afghanistan (1974) Algeria and Morocco, and Turkey and Syria (1975). During these extended trips she collected a wealth of information in the form of sound recordings, slides and photographs, and also kept regular diaries. In addition, she collected a vast range of musical instruments.
After curating the 1976 exhibition “Music and Musical Instruments for the World of Islam” at the Horniman Museum, thereby introducing the collections to a much wider audience, in 1978 she left the museum and continued to work independently in Edinburgh, France and Germany. In 1983 she curated the important exhibition “Man and Music” at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. She died in London on 12 September 1990.
Collections at the National Museums of Scotland
In 1980 the National Museums of Scotland acquired Jean Jenkins’s own collection of musical instruments and in 1990 the Museum was bequeathed her entire archive of field recordings, indexes, diaries and 13,000 slides and photographs. Together, they form a unique record of musical traditions which, in some places, have disappeared.