Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound: exhibiting sonic jewels from the British Library Archive for the first time

Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the very first sound-focused exhibition staged by the British Library and it brings to public view material from the tremendous resource which is the British Library Sound Archive. The exhibition tells the story of sound recording since the invention of the phonograph in 1877, reflects the impact of radio in the 20th century, and the importance of sound in recording our lives and cultural heritage. It is part of a major event the British Library is conducting, Season of Sound, celebrating all aspects of the listening experience, which comprises a programme of accompanying events such as lectures, tours and workshops, all aiming at connecting people with their audio heritage.

The sounds and objects of material culture in exhibition come from the British Library Sound Archive. The British Library owns an extensive collection of 6.5 million unique sound recordings from all over the world and covers the entire range of recorded sound from the 1880s to the present day. These are arranged into nine collections: accents and dialects; arts, literature, and performance; classical music; environment and nature; popular music; oral history; radio and sound recording history; world and traditional music; and sound maps. The British Library has been doing a huge job in preserving and digitising the archive and making it available for researchers, and also in making part of this collection available for listening online, although some items are restricted to users in accredited higher education establishments. This exhibition thus stands out as the first explicit onsite event focused on sharing the archive’s contents set in a logical narrative.

The narrative drives museum-goers through key moments and figures in the history of recorded sound, including the birth of the BBC, the rise of the pop charts, and 16-year-old Alfred Taylor, whose ‘Wireless Log’ in 1922 can be compared to modern-day vloggers and YouTubers. The chronological sequence is crammed with a representative selection of sounds from the archive including many rare and unpublished recordings. As for the objects of material culture, there are items on display from the British Library’s rarely-seen collection of records, players and recorders, exploring how technology has transformed our listening experience.

Early at the beginning, the exhibition highlights a very important and, most of the time, unseen priority in terms of heritage: it draws museum-goers’ attention to the significance and the challenges of collecting and preserving the archive’s collections. This starts with an explanation of how physical carriers degrade over time, how the equipment for playing them becomes obsolete, and how even more recent formats like CDs and tapes can be vulnerable in terms of conservation as well. It then moves on to highlight the need to make digital copies of the wide-ranging collection and develop new bulk processing and storage systems so that future generations can still have access to these resources.

In terms of displays, the exhibition is very interesting; not only as regards the materials used in building the exhibitive structures which strikingly resemble audio studios, but also by the solutions it offers to the question of displaying sound. My favourite is the seated listening stations with a menu of 100 sounds from the archive, in which visitors can sit in a reserved listening space to enjoy part of the audible displays (see image).

Exhibition highlights include:

  • Rarely-seen artefacts from the Library’s collection of cylinder machines, record players and tape recorders
  • Rare and unusual records from the collection, including James Joyce reading from Ulysses in 1924 (one of the rarest literary spoken word discs in the British Library’s collection and one of only two recordings of the voice of James Joyce), and the smallest 78 rpm disc ever issued, made for Queen Mary’s dolls’ house, also in 1924
  • An X-ray disc from Soviet Russia, playable stamps from the Kingdom of Bhutan, and historical and modern picture discs
  • Original ‘voice letter’ record-your-own-voice discs from the 1920s onward

The exhibition also features a specially-commissioned sound installation by musician and former British Library composer-in-residence Aleks Kolkowski, which takes its inspiration from the Wireless Log and Minutes Book by 16-year-old radio enthusiast Alfred Taylor (1922, British Library Collection). The work uses archival recordings from the British Library and is channeled through antiquated radio horn loudspeakers to reproduce a near representation of historical radio, as it was heard in its early years.

Definitely a must see.

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