Noel Lobley, Ethnomusicologist Research Associate, “Reel 2 real project”, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Museums and the anthropology of sound

No human sense is more neglected in ethnographic museums than sound.

In this presentation I will give an overview of The Reel to Real Project (2012-13), designed to make available for the widest use, both in and beyond the museum space itself, the unique sound collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM), Oxford University's Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology. I ultimately work towards showcasing Sound Galleries, my curated series of ongoing events designed to explore the role of sound, listening and performance in cultures.

The PRM has been collecting music, sound and instruments for over 100 years. Thousands of hours of rare ethnographic sound, donated to the Museum since the early twentieth century had, until recently, been held in storage, known only to a handful of scholars. These sound recordings – which range from children's songs in Britain and Europe to music from South America and the South Pacific, and from improvised water drumming to the sound of rare earth bows in the rainforests of the Central African Republic – were preserved but unavailable to members of the public, teachers, students, or to the communities from which the sound originated.

Today, digital circulation of these recordings is promoting new listening engagements among expanding international audiences, and is also raising awareness of social problems facing increasingly marginalized communities. Ethnographic recordings are increasingly being used by sound artists, DJs, choreographers, filmmakers and researchers to engage new audiences. For example, the world’s largest archive of BaAka field recordings is currently circulating online, in museum gallery spaces and beyond in order to develop interdisciplinary projects linking ethnomusicologists, eResearch centres, conservationists, and BaAka source communities. I will introduce my current research exploring ways in which these recordings can ultimately be reconnected with BaAka people for their benefit, creating responsible and reciprocal communicative networks between academic institutions, eResearchers and the BaAka communities requesting offline access to their sound heritage.

How do you curate the experience of sound? How does this most intangible and ephemeral of media respond to, and develop, curatorial practice? How have curators responded to these problems, and what might the future of sound curation be? Drawing examples from my interdisciplinary work that combines ethnomusicology, sound studies and museum anthropology, I illustrate some of the pro-active experiential sound events that I have designed and curated.