Listen to 140 Years of Sound at the British Library

Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound.
Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound. Picture | British Library Board

An exhibition specialized in recorded sound has been opened in the British Library. As the title suggests, Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound presents key moments in the history of sound recording since the invention of the phonograph in 1877.

From voices of Johannes Brahms and Florence to wildlife sounds and contemporary rap music, visitors can enjoy a selection of 100 sounds that amounts to a total of seven hours from the archive. Rare and unusual items like signed James Joyce disc from 1924, playable postage stamps from Bhutan, and early and modern picture discs made it a must-see exhibition. Moreover, a specially commissioned ambient audio installation, Boy Wireless by composer Aleks Kolkowski, is amongst the elements of the exhibition, which is inspired by the early days of radio.

“This exhibition is a little different from the norm in that we are foregrounding the listening experience, which can sometimes seem subordinate to the objects on display.” Stephen Cleary, the lead curator of Literary and Creative Recordings, said: “The items on display were chosen either because they illustrate a stage in the development of sound recording and playback or because they have some particular visual appeal or interests.”

The materials exhibited rely on abundant resources, like commercial recordings, unpublished privately made recordings, BBC radio and other broadcasting, and some recordings made by the British Library, which has one of the largest sound archives in the world.

Dolls house disc.
Dolls house disc. Picture | British Library Board

However, this exhibition is also dedicated to raise the awareness of the challenges that all sound archives are facing: that of the cycle of technology and formats becoming obsolete and replaced by something new.

According to Cleary, the nation’s sound collections are under threat from physical degradation of radio recordings and as the means of playing them disappear from production. It is widely acknowledged globally that, there are just a few years left to save sound collections before they become unplayable and are effectively lost.

The British Library has been working on the Save Our Sounds program, a large-scale audio preservation project, which also aims to build up a new national radio archive and start cooperation with the music industry to ensure its long-tern preservation.

“all sound archives face the challenge: that of the cycle of technology and formats becoming obsolete and replaced by something new”

“The Library announced in 2015 that it would receive £9.5 million which helps to digitise 500,000 rare and at-risk sound recordings in the country,” Cleary said. “Over 100,000 of these recordings will be made available free-to-access online.”

Cleary added that the whole project is based on a clear object to transform access to and preserve the UK’s most vulnerable audio heritage, raise awareness of the importance and value of the nation’s sound heritage, create sustainable centres of excellence in digital audio preservation around the UK, and involve new audiences in engaging with their audio heritage in innovative ways.

The exhibition is situated in the Library’s Entrance Hall with free entry and runs till 13 May 2018.


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