Go back to article: Oramics to electronica: investigating lay understandings of the history of technology through a participatory project

Expert group 1: original participants

Given Daphne Oram’s death in 2003, a participant account from her was evidently impossible. But the ambition of Oramics to Electronica had consistently been to go beyond the work of Oram and to situate it in the broader history of electronic music. It was on this basis that we invited people who had worked at two organisations contemporary with her work – the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Electronic Music Studios (EMS) – to participate in the project on the basis that a showcase each would be devoted to their stories. The two groups were engaged together so as to explore overlaps and linkages that might have occurred in the period under consideration. It was also hoped that this approach would reveal aspects of the history that were not already on record.[10]

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of Daphne Oram leaning over the Oramics Machine and drawing black lines on one of the acetate strips

Daphne Oram working at the Oramics Machine (ca. 1969); the top three films with masks of paper or tape controlled the pitch; the other films controlled the quality of the sound.

Although it was not practical to convene these original participants on a regular basis,[11] the sessions were of great value, revealing contrary to expectations that the musical interests of the two groups had diverged rather than converged after EMS sold synthesizers to the Radiophonic Workshop in the 1970s.[12] The less intensive nature of the work with these original participants (as compared with the present-day music enthusiasts) required a more mediated approach to what would actually appear in the final exhibition. In this sense, these displays were closer to a conventional curator-led display than the others, though in this case the curator acted deliberately in the role of mediator rather than author. In each session, the participants were invited to discuss the interactions of technical means and musical possibilities in the 1960s and 1970s. These gave rise to curatorial proposals about what might be displayed. The accompanying label texts in the final exhibition were all abbreviated quotations from the discussions (which were being recorded on Dictaphones and by Nick Street for the project film – see Oramics to Electronica documentary). This approach was intended to combine the wish for these displays to embody an autobiographical account of the subject without making undue demands on these participants.[13]

In relation to the public history question about how visitors view objects from a position of expertise, working with this particular group enabled correction of the ‘standard account’; the witness of these participants altered the narrative we might have conveyed. We know that every day people see objects in the Museum that have personal significance, ranging from the social history appeal of ‘didn’t we used to have one like that?’ to the late career scientist encountering on display a piece of unique apparatus from early in their career. One difference that the co-production technique enabled here was an interaction that introduced new objects into the account of the appropriate type. For example, one significant original participant told a story about making crude electromechanical sequencers using uniselectors (telephone exchange electromagnetically-actuated switches); it was possible to include in the display such an item from the Museum’s telecommunications collection.

Figure 3

A post Office heavy-duty 25-point 6-level uniselectorof metal construction

A post Office heavy-duty 25-point 6-level uniselector (1930), of a similar type to that used by Peter Zinovieff as a crude electromechanical sequencer.

Similarly, discussions with a member of the original EMS team who now runs a business repairing EMS equipment, enabled the acquisition and display of several prototypes and early products of the company. In other words, the close co-production model went beyond normal Museum practice to create both a richer account and stronger collections for the future. The displayed account, though highly concise, contained a deep inflection of autobiographical insight.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/004