Saturday, June 6, 2015
A Blast from the Past
When: through January 2016
I've mentioned before how much I enjoy the exhibits in the Small Documents Gallery on the 2nd floor of American History, and this display is another interesting examination of a piece of America's story - this time with a twist. Rather than printed documents, which make up the usual show here, this time the documents are audio recordings.
Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone fame, was very interested in recorded sound, and worked on the idea of a phonograph. Bell and two friends set up a company called Volta Laboratory here in Washington, at 1221 Connecticut Avenue, NW. (Since that's close to the area where I used to work, I'm sure I've walked past that location numerous times, unaware of its historical connections.)
Lost to time for decades, as technology advanced and left these formats behind, the recordings they made languished in silence in a box at American History after they were donated to the museum for safekeeping, in case of a patent fight. One usually thinks of donations to a museum as a noble gesture, designed to preserve the nation's history for future generations. In this case, not so much. Whatever the reason for the gift, I'm glad this is where the recordings wound up.
Now, thanks to a partnership among the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the American History Museum, they are audible once again. Not only can you see the recordings and read transcripts of their contents, you can actually hear them. A software called IRENE allows old recordings to come to life - a way for content from endangered historic media to be heard by modern ears.
Among the recordings you can hear is Bell's actual voice, the only authenticated example of him speaking. He reads out a text a couple of minutes long that closes with the words, "Hear my voice." Now, after so many years, we can do just that.
Verdict: This is a small show and well worth seeing and hearing!