Do you remember the sound of the telephone? Re-remembering our sonic history

Art Art & Lit Literature

Image Credit: Bob Clark. Description: a vinyl record player.

When someone says the word “endangered”, what do you immediately think of? Polar bears, melting ice-caps, ancient artefacts, or even a language? Rarely might we give the prompt answer – ways of life. But it is a fact that we know must be true – that as modern technology develops at an accelerated speed, it consequently diminishes older concerns and ways of living. However, rather than seeing ‘the past’ as a faded vignette fraying at the edges, we know on some sub-conscious level that this past was a dynamic space with its own context, including sounds that perhaps now seems alien to us like the whirr of a gramophone or sending a telegram. Similar to artefacts in a museum, these sounds emitted by objects had a living story in someone’s daily life, interwoven with their memories, and experience in the world as they knew it.

Sounds can be powerful and transformative mechanisms; they can change our mind, persuade, console, or unhinge us – think of propaganda, a nostalgic song, or a news broadcast. Then there are objects from our own childhood, which in the future might become defunct or ‘extinct’ so-to-speak. There are sounds in my own life like the satisfying clunk of a cassette slotting into a radio that makes me wonder whether this memory, so comforting and familiar, will survive in the next generation. Perhaps you also enjoy using an older device over its modern counter-part and wonder how long before they are discontinued, and altogether disappear in the mists of time. Museums have long mastered the sense of sight through preserving physical objects from the past, but if certain sounds are ‘endangered’, i.e. could be soon lost in the deluge of technological change, why not preserve sounds? 

… one can hear what a Pigeon Racing Clock from the 20s, a Telephone W38, or even a car window crank handle sounded like…

This was the impetus of an innovative online museum project called ‘Conserve the Sound’, a catalogue of “vanishing and endangered sounds”, as its website states. In its minimalist style, there are no plinths or the elaborate décor of a historic museum, but bare images of out-dated objects in an empty background, accompanied de facto by the decade, name of the object, manufacturer, and a crisp record of the sound it made. In a world of sensory overload, this stark display allows the individual to hone in on the emphasis on sound. The team of ‘Conserve the Sound’ have done well to collect an eclectic menagerie of objects; from old calculators, cameras and engines, this adds to the chocolate-box delight of the website. For example, one can hear what a Pigeon Racing Clock from the 20s, a Telephone W38, or even a car window crank handle sounded like (although some of these sounds one can perhaps still disconcertingly remember).

The website also offers an archive of interviews which provide insight into the website’s theme of disappearing sounds. ‘Conserve the Sound’ usefully gives us the possibility of searching by chronology which, even on a brief inspection, charts how fast technology has evolved in the last century, and so too the sounds, function, and design of devices, which were probably once state-of-the-art in their era. There is a mysterious allure that ‘lost’ artefacts generally have in the material culture world, as exemplified by Noah Charney’s May 2018 book The Museum of Lost Art which covered the riveting real stories of famous artworks, their disappearance, and recovery. If the tale of lost art is worth preserving, the story of lost sounds could have an equal appeal. 

Museum projects like ‘Conserve the Sound’ are crucially important in my opinion, because they occupy a territory of time, which is seldom associated with museums; what I would call ‘the near-past’. This territory is not the pre-historic or ancient past, but right on the cusp of our collective memory; objects in ‘the near-past’ are those which earlier generations remember or used in their daily life, such as an analogue typewriter or dial telephone; objects which, given the speed at which technology has advanced, recedes silently into the backdrop. It makes logical sense therefore to preserve sounds, which could be ‘endangered’. I use ‘endangered’ here in the sense of being in danger of soon being displaced by the increasingly fast pace of advancements, just as the sound of a horse-drawn cart or melding a hammer belongs to a sonic world that seem aloof to most people today. Sound should be as equally valuable as sight in museums as it creates the fabric of much of human experience and therefore, to our epistemic understanding.

… the historic is not just consigned to the past, it is happening now; whenever we use appliances to make a cup of tea, participate in a rally, watch a movie, or use pharmaceuticals.

Here is where the British Museum deserves a mention – because as well as preserving antiquities, they are committed to building the breadth of their collection to benefit people today and the future. The Museum therefore collects contemporary objects from around the world, which document “social, political, spiritual, economic, artistic and technological change” as their website explains. This inter-historical tissue is important in forming ties between present and past, as “contemporary objects allow the Museum to continue to tell the story of world cultures for future generations.” It is an important note to remember for anyone in the world of material culture – the historic is not just consigned to the past, it is happening now; whenever we use appliances to make a cup of tea, participate in a rally, watch a movie, or use pharmaceuticals. 

A similar initiative was launched by an American team in early 2012 in a website called ‘Museum of Endangered Sounds’. The virtual interface of the ‘online’ museum suits the cataloguing of sound; instead of the physicality of objects that physical museums display, the online platform is concerned with creating a concentrated experience. Whether this means replicating the tactile force of hitting keys of a typewriter or spinning the dial on a rotary phone, these sounds are not just a nostalgic fancy but also a valuable insight into how our sensory experience has changed over the years because of technology. These online museums therefore are as much a social account of technology as a preservation of sound.

For example, ‘Museum of Endangered Sounds’ places much attention to the 1980s and ‘90s in particular, thereby tracking the unprecedented speed at which technology enhanced in a matter of decades. The sound of connecting a dial-up Internet service, Nokia’s first ring-tone, or the sound of a VCR machine, might still be familiar to some but now is a distant cry from the sleek, silent touch-screen of the iPhone or selecting from a plethora of entertainment with just a press of a button. The ephemeral nature of technology means that older objects will become obsolete, and the soundscapes we are accustomed to will constantly metamorphose, but this should be all the more reason to preserve sounds. There is also an introspective quality in hearing sounds from ‘the near-past’; a tangible way of relating to the people of a previous generation and scrutinising how human beings live alongside technology; does the advancement of technology make us happier? Has technology made our lives more complex and if so, is that good for us? What does the technology we produce say about our epoch? All of these questions flow from a morsel of sound and are questions that perhaps we not only ask ourselves, but wonder what answers the future will find about us.