by Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
27th October is the UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Here at Unlocking Our Sound Heritage we like to think that it’s ‘our’ day.
As a project dealing entirely with audio heritage, we’ll be marking the day all week, with a series of new blogs from the team reflecting on different elements of the project, an opportunity to #AskUsAnything via the new media of Twitter and a short film about what actually happens in the UOSH studio: The journey of a tape.
But what is a World Day for Audiovisual Heritage? Why did UNESCO feel there was a need for it?
It was established in 2005 as a way to ‘raise general awareness of the need to preserve and safeguard important audiovisual material for future generations’1. Film and sound recordings are rich historical records of lives in the 20th and 21st centuries, of technological development, of changes in communication and of cultural expression. As a medium, recordings have captured sounds and moving images of things that no longer exist, and obviously of people from long ago. The safeguarding of these recordings cuts right to the heart of what we are doing at UOSH: digitising them for preservation and to enable people to listen to them and understand them. We predominantly understand the past, prior to the 20th century, through the written word, creative expression, the historic environment and the objects of the time. But with the advent of sound and moving image recording, we can step back in time and hear the voices of the past, see the people and places come alive. Our engagement with the people, the events and the landscapes of the past is transformed. It’s hard to describe my excitement when I first heard Florence Nightingale’s crackly and distorted voice talking about the Light Brigade Fund in 1890. To my mind she was entirely consigned to the past, to book and stories. Yet here is a recording of her and 130 years later I can hear her talking: quite possibly the closest I’ll get to time travel.
The audiovisual heritage that we are preserving as part of UOSH – historic sound recordings from across the south east – are at risk from the twin problems of: deterioration of the medium itself (disc rot, tape shedding, etc) or the loss of the equipment and expertise required to play the sound recordings. The most common format we’re currently digitising are open reel tapes: generally stable and in good condition, but the open reel tape players and the engineers to maintain them are a scarce resource. Without intervention now, these historical records will become increasingly difficult to find or listen to
The theme for 2020 is Your window to the world:
‘audiovisual materials as documentary heritage allow us to observe events that we cannot attend, to hear voices from the past who can no longer speak, and to craft stories that inform and entertain. Audiovisual content plays an increasingly vital role in our lives as we seek to understand the world and engage with our fellow beings2’.
The audio recordings give us and future generations a ‘window on to the world’ of the past, of past sounds, of past voices and past lives. Through our work, we are able to hear Mollie Taylor talk about a job that no longer exists: that of the crossing keeper for the railway at Barcombe, East Sussex [UTK002/68]; we can hear the ‘militant mothers’ of Boundstone Comprehensive school in West Sussex, campaigning against speeding motorists in 1972 (see how little changes) [UTK006/61], and we can notice that in the 1970s, an unknown sound recordist filled gaps in their recording with the speaking clock [UTK007/387].
Mollie Taylor talks about her work as a railway crossing keeper in Barcombe, East Sussex. [UTK002/68]
BBC Radio Brighton reports on self-styled ‘militant mothers’ protesting against speeding motorists outside Boundstone School, West Sussex, 1972. [UTK006/62]
A clip of the speaking clock! [UTK007/377]
For World Day for Audiovisual Heritage I encourage you to listen to the world around you, hear the daily sounds and think about how sound impacts upon your life. I hope you enjoy our blogs and if you have questions about what we are doing or why we’re doing it, do follow us on Twitter @KeepSounds or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions for #AskUsAnything.