British Library project breathes new life into earliest recordings of Pacific cultures

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British Library project breathes new life into earliest recordings of Pacific cultures
Wax cylinder recordings in the British Library Sound Archive. Image copyright the British Library Board.

LONDON.- A new project led by the British Library aims to reconnect a rich archive of early sound recordings of cultures from the Pacific region with the indigenous communities from which they originate.

Funded by Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), True Echoes: reconnecting cultures with recordings from the beginning of sound will utilise recently digitised wax cylinder recordings that date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which represent some of the earliest uses of sound in anthropological research.

Beginning with the recordings made in 1898 by members of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, the wax cylinder collection held by the British Library Sound Archive also includes recordings made over the subsequent two decades in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia. These rare recordings are hugely significant as the earliest documents of oral traditions from Oceanic communities, where cultural rituals and histories are primarily recorded in music and song.

Over the next three years the True Echoes project will work with cultural and research institutions in the region and in the UK to enhance the visibility and accessibility of these collections, ensuring that they are catalogued in ways that are accessible to the communities whose heritage they represent.

Partners include: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS), Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS), Solomon Islands Archives and Museum (SIAM), New Caledonia Tjibaou Cultural Centre (NCTCC), PARADISEC at the University of Sydney (the Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures), Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (CMAA), and the British Museum (BM).

The project will also encourage participatory research into the collections, exploring as never before their meaning to the communities from which they originate. The richness, complexity and enhanced availability of the wax cylinder collections will be highlighted to research audiences across Oceania and around the world through a programme of films, radio programmes, talks and conferences.

Dr Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation at the British Library, said: “This project is about sharing indigenous knowledge and reconnecting the rich archival sources held by the British Library and other UK institutions with researchers and peer institutions across the Pacific region. It will transform the ways in which these collections can be explored by the very people they represent, transcending barriers of language, geography and time. The project complements the aims of the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages and we hope will leave a lasting legacy of research connections between ourselves, our collections and our international partners.”

Professor Don Niles of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies said: “The collections at the British Library include the earliest recordings made here, and we very much look forward to learning more about them, pinpointing the communities involved, and documenting how these recordings link the past to the present and future.”

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