Go back to article: Acoustics on display: collecting and curating sound at the Science Museum

Sound at the Science Museum: acoustic taxonomy

Two concertinas, produced by the instrument’s inventor Charles Wheatstone, comprised the acoustics collection of the South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum) on the year of its opening in 1857. In the years that followed, the Museum acquired apparatus from several pioneering acoustic experiments including Helmholtz’s complete apparatus for the synthesis of sound, made by Rudolph Koenig; Bosanquet’s harmonium for musical experiments with pure scale; and a large set of tuning forks also made by Koenig in 1885.[2] Notable too was the acquisition of Thomas Edison’s original tinfoil phonograph, the first mechanical machine to both record and reproduce sound.[3] Certainly these were star objects, though the collection was, according to the Bell Report of 1911 on the future of the Science Museum, incomplete, disordered and ‘hopelessly overcrowded’ in its display (Follett, 1978, p 24).[4]

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a model of the first tinfoil phonograph

Model replica of Thomas Edison's (1847—1931) first phonograph, 1877

The Bell Report made several recommendations for the modernisation of the Science Museum, including new buildings and new strategies for the acquisition, categorisation and display of collections. Administrative problems and a World War stymied the new building work and it was not until 1925 that the acoustics collection was relocated to the Museum’s new East Block. Keeper of Physics, Ernest Lancaster-Jones, interpreted this deferral in modernisation not as a hindrance, however, but as an opportunity for reviewing the acoustics collection and for thinking carefully about a rationale for its future development. In 1923, Lancaster-Jones completed a new scheme for the expansion of the collection. The scheme subdivided the collection into five discrete sections corresponding to the production, control, recording and measurement of sound, and to the application of acoustics in science, technology and industry. An additional section, called the ‘Index Collection’ included diagrams, photographs, models and a large written label, and highlighted important stages in the development of these various branches of acoustics.[5] This new taxonomy transformed the acoustics collection both physically and discursively, embodying the approaches to museum display set out by the Bell Report and later standardised by Sir Henry Lyons, Science Museum Director from 1920 to 1933. The categorisation of objects also meant that critical questions were now being asked in order to define disciplinary boundaries, to develop a rationale for the acquisition of new objects and, importantly, to assess strategies for displaying the collection to the public.

In the months leading up to the official opening of the Science Museum’s East Block in March 1928, Lancaster-Jones worked closely with industry in order to bring the Sound Receivers, Recorders and Reproducers section up-to-date. The Gramophone Company – then market leaders in Britain in the development of the gramophone – made a substantial contribution in the form of several object loans. Combined with existing Science Museum acquisitions, the objects were abundant enough to chart the principle developments in phonograph and gramophone technology from the 1870s to the present.[6] [7] Historical objects from the Gramophone Company’s museum in Hayes included Stoh’s experimental sound reproducer made in 1878; a set of early Edison sound boxes; and a gramophone with an inverted horn made in 1910. Two instruments, both produced by the Gramophone Company, represented the pinnacle of modern gramophone technology: the first an automatic 20-deck gramophone, the second a state-of-the-art electric gramophone.[8] Following the advice from the Bell Report, which had advocated the instructive possibilities for public demonstrations of the Museum’s objects, Lancaster-Jones recommended that these two ‘striking developments’ be made audible to visitors (Follett, 1978).[9]

For Lancaster-Jones, the instructive potential of the demonstration of the electric gramophone lay in its ability to showcase the effects of technology upon sound propagation and sonic particularity, attributes that, he felt, language could not adequately capture alone. Referencing an existing demonstration in which the same music record was played consecutively on a pre-war, a post-war and an electrical instrument, he wrote that acoustic display ‘does more to express the great development in the technique of reproduction than any amount of verbal explanation’.[10] Through attentive listening, an appreciation of the technical attributes of modern gramophone technology would necessarily follow. Furthermore, as the reference to the existing demonstration illustrates, the electric gramophone offered an auditory equivalent to the taxonomic approach to museum display, which encouraged appreciation of technological development through direct comparison. The demonstration showcased the height of sound reproduction technology against which reproduced sounds encountered outside the museum might be measured.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170706/002