Animals, Art, Science and Sound is an exhibition focussing how animals have been represented and described through words, visuals, and recorded sounds. The exhibition features more than 100 artworks, manuscripts, sound recordings and books, many on display for the first time. Items on exhibition span 2.000 years and are divided into four sections, namely darkness, water, land and air.

The exhibition follows the same visual style as other exhibitions I have seen at the British Library. Although the visual presentation is not particularly impressive or engaging, the documents and manuscripts on display are truly remarkable and often breathtaking. It’s impossible not to be captivated by the age and authenticity of these items, as well as the wonder of their images, paper quality, and exquisite finishes. I was somewhat disappointed with the exhibition due to the small number of animal sound recordings featured. Considering that the British Library Sound archive is one of the largest collections of recorded sound in the world, with over six million items, I was expecting a more extensive display of animal sounds. There are, nonetheless, noteworthy sound-related aspects and exhibits worth highlighting.

One thing is how the exhibition stresses how the invention of recorded sound allowed naturalists to document the sonic dimensions of animal life, to discover new species and unravel the meanings behind their songs and calls, stimulate creativity and give pleasure to listeners, and how these recordings served a wide range of purposes from scientific research to artistic endeavour. There are, nonetheless, noteworthy sound-related aspects and exhibits worth highlighting:

● A 1965 issue of the Stamp and Coin Collector magazine containing the first commercially released sound recordings of birds of paradise who are known to produce a variety of vocalisations;

● An encyclopaedia including what is probably the earliest use of musical notation to represent the songs and calls of birds in a printed work;

● The first gramophone commercially released recording on an animal which proved to be an instant hit with listeners—engineers from the Gramophone company in Germany wanted to see whether it was possible to record birdsong, their experiments were successful and resulted in the release of eight records of nightingale song in 1910;

● The first audio identification guide for British birds released in 1938 containing recordings made by the pioneering wild life sound recordist Ludwig Kock—people could learn by recognise the songs and calls of common British birds from the comfort of their homes;

● A field recordist’s handbook to help the amateurs enthusiasts which has become an essential guide for any new recordist, offering advice on equipment, field craft and cataloguing;

● A tape containing the song of the last Kaua’i oo. Habitat destruction and predation from invasive species, introduced to the Hawailan island of Kaua’i over the last hundred years, reduced the once thriving population to a single pair. In 1982, the female died during a hurricane, leaving behind her male partner. It is his solitary sonf that can be heard in the tape. The species was declared extinct in 2000;

● Finally, there is sound recording equipment often used in the 1970s and 1980s to record animals in the wild. It comprises a parabolic microphone, with a concave dish to amplify the song or call of the animal being recorded. The sound was then recorded onto tape using the Uher Report Monitor — a portable equipment that would still be incredibly cumbersome by today’s standards.

Animals, Art, Science and Sound presents a unique opportunity to witness exhibits that showcase the significance of sound in enhancing our understanding of animal life and enriching our experience of the world.

British Library in London

Until 28th August 2023