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

The Trumpet Shall Sound

In December 1977, actress and opera singer Janet Baker unveiled a temporary exhibition at the Science Museum.[24] So named due to the large volume of horns displayed, The Trumpet Shall Sound commemorated one hundred years since the invention of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil phonograph. Given pride of place in the Main Hall, the exhibition took the form of an installation shaped like an attic, with accompanying sloping roof, tiles and ceiling joists, evoking the manner in which a collector might store his or her vintage objects. Visitors entered by ascending a set of small steps. Once inside, each would then progress along a narrow walkway through five small rooms, gazing at the one hundred and twenty phonographs and gramophones placed behind a Perspex screen, some on the floor, others propped on top of old suitcases. A series of historic advertisements decorated the attic’s gable ends, giving commercial and cultural context to this rare grouping of objects commemorating the golden age of the talking machine.[25]

Figure 6

Colour photograph of an invitation to the opening of an exhibition at the Science Museum in 1977 commemorating the invention of Edisons phonograph

Chew’s invitation to the opening of The Trumpet Shall Sound

Figure 7

Black and white photograph of the entrance to the Trumpet Shall Sound phonograph exhibition at the Science Museum London

The entrance to The Trumpet Shall Sound exhibition at the Science Museum in 1977

The Trumpet Shall Sound was self-consciously nostalgic, celebrating the historic range of instruments on display. In 1974, the Museum had acquired, on loan, a large volume of phonographs and gramophones from EMI’s museum in Hayes. The objects ranged in date of manufacture from 1878 to 1938 and thus fell broadly within the critical years of the technological development of the phonograph and gramophone. The EMI collection made up the majority of the objects in the exhibition. Additional instruments from the Science Museum collection emphasised the significance of Edison’s role in the story of talking machines.

The Trumpet Shall Sound provided Chew with an opportunity to experiment with acoustic display in the interpretation of what he referred to in the Science Museum’s annual report in 1977 as the ‘Cinderella collection’. The centenary of the tinfoil phonograph provided Chew with a rare opportunity to experiment with exhibition techniques hitherto associated with larger exhibitions such as the Shipping Gallery, which gave visitors the impression of being aboard a real ship, and the Aeronautics Gallery, which put visitors within a full-scale simulated aeroplane hangar. Chew could now abandon, albeit temporarily, rows of glass showcases housing objects with verbose written labels to make way for a new exhibition landscape which used spectacle and humour, performance and play, in order to capture the attention of his visitors. The occasion also offered Chew an opportunity to return to sound in the practice of putting the sound recording and reproduction collection on display. A key component of the installation was a taped commentary, both written and recorded by Chew, which represented a serious attempt at positioning sound as a key carrier of the exhibition’s meaning and narrative.

Broadcast on a set of loudspeakers, the audio accompaniment comprised verbal descriptions of select objects, supplemented by a series of audio excerpts from relevant historic records. Each description included a number enunciated by Chew twice, enabling listeners to link the commentary to the particular object in question. The numbering system corresponded to that used for an EMI catalogue produced for the EMI museum in Hayes in 1974, which had been written by the editor of the magazine Talking Machines Review, Ernie Bayly. A second edition of the catalogue was published in December 1977, copies of which were available for purchase in Science Museum’s bookshop for the duration of the exhibition.

The sound commentary was divided into five sections, mirroring the structure of Chew’s text on the history of the phonograph and gramophone, ‘Talking machines 1877–1914: some aspects of the early history of the gramophone’, published in 1967. The first section celebrated Edison’s contribution to the talking machine industry and spoke of the contrasting uses of the phonograph as an office dictating machine, as an instrument for entertainment and as a tool for research into the scientific study of acoustics. The second section turned attention to the Berliner company in Germany and the exploitation of Berliner machines in Britain by The Gramophone Company. The third dealt with developments in gramophone technology in both France and Germany. The fourth and fifth sections dealt with portable and toy machines, and what Chew referred to as ‘freaks’, so named either for their idiosyncratic design or for their technological particularity or obsolescence.

The sound commentary for The Trumpet Shall Sound (excerpts below) was designed to entertain as much as to educate listeners. The historic records and accompanying descriptions went beyond technical detail, aiming to capture, in sound, both the commercial and cultural significance of the phonograph and gramophone in question. An historic recording of a choir of four thousand voices singing the Christmas carol ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ aimed to impress upon visitors the capabilities for fidelity of the electrically recorded disc produced in 1925.[26] A recording, obtained from the BBC’s archives, of Lord Tennyson’s reading of his poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ spoke to the phonograph as an instrument for the preservation of the sounds of national identity.[27] An excerpt from the First World War hit song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ introduced a section on the portable gramophone. Here Chew guided the attention of listeners towards a portable Decca gramophone manufactured in 1914 with outer casing decorated with twelve battle honours. The coupling of sight and sound aimed at harnessing the emotions as a sense-making tool. The sight of the portable Decca gramophone, hundreds of which were used to entertain troops sent to the trenches during the First World War, coupled with this popular war song, captured the permeation of everyday collective listening practices into the extraordinary soundscapes of warfare.[28]

Audio 1

A compilation of audio featured in The Trumpet Shall Sound exhibition's soundtrack at the Science Museum, London

The commemorative celebrations of Edison’s tinfoil phonograph provided a rare opportunity for gathering together not just a set of star items from the golden age of the talking machine, but a set of star sound objects too. The sonic excerpts that made up Chew’s sound commentary represented an integral part of the exhibition, providing information on specific objects, offering points of departure for the elucidation of historical and cultural context, and conjuring the appropriate emotions and sensibilities fitting for the exhibition’s overarching theme. Chew’s sound commentary filled the installation, placing sound at the forefront of the exhibition’s design. The visual components of the display acted as a backdrop to foreground sounds and spoken word, prompting a reversal of the established hierarchy of the senses embedded in display practices at the Science Museum at that time. Attic sounds thus displaced the figure of the detached and static observer and forged connections between visitor and the objects on display, activating participation in the mobilisation of the exhibition’s meanings and narratives.

The Trumpet Shall Sound received extensive coverage in The Hillandale News – the official publication of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society – which celebrated its one-hundredth edition in 1977. Four society members reviewed the exhibition, though each took issue with the style of display, regarding the attic installation as an undignified stage for these rare collector’s items. ‘Poor show – three out of ten’, remarked one, whilst another spoke of the difficulty in finding ‘any good words to say about the exhibition’ at all. Criticism hinged on the tight grouping of objects, many of which were pushed back in the shadowy recesses of the attic’s eaves. One reviewer, for example, spoke of having to kneel on the floor in order to study a series of Spanish replicas of an Edison phonograph. Though one spoke of the pleasure of hearing Chew’s familiar voice, comments largely focused on the exhibition’s visual design with little scrutiny given over to the its auditory features. Such visual bias may indicate a pre-existing knowledge in this expert audience of the technical details and historical anecdotes recounted in the exhibition, but it also hints at the absence of a discourse through which to articulate the effects of sound and the sound installation as technologies in shaping the museum-going experience. Kneeling on the floor, straining to catch a glimpse of a phonograph or gramophone, suggest an on-going adherence to established sensory hierarchies embedded in museum exhibition practice which, at the Science Museum at least, continued to privilege the eye over the ear.[29] Chew’s serious attempt at reversing the hierarchies of the senses via the technologies of the sound installation seemed, for some at least, to fall on deaf ears.[30]

Following The Trumpet Shall Sound exhibition, the Science Museum purchased several objects from the EMI collection, which had been put up for auction at Christie’s in London. The new acquisitions were added to what Chew in 1978 re-titled the ‘Talking Machines Gallery’, which reunited a set of objects that had been dispersed across the Museum following building work in the East Block in 1976.[31] The new Talking Machines Gallery took broadly the form of its early 1970s predecessor, configured through traditional and visual forms of display. This collection was displayed through a set of techniques that returned the figure of the detached observer with sound once again reserved for scheduled demonstrations. In 1978 Chew retired from his post as Keeper of Physics. During the 1980s a permanent exhibition on Optics replaced the Talking Machines Gallery whose objects were either placed in storage or recruited to play parts in exhibition narratives in other parts of the Museum.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170706/005