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

Charles Myers recording the sacred songs of the Malo ceremony, with Ulai singing into the phonograph and Gusu playing the drum Wasikor. Mer, Torres Strait, Australia. July 1898. [N.23209.ACH2] Image courtesy of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
  • True Echoes project, funded by Leverhulme Trust and BEIS, to transform awareness of wax cylinder recordings and reconnect them with indigenous communities in the Pacific region
  • Recordings dating back to 1898 represent the earliest surviving record of the sung and spoken cultures of Oceania

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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Notes to Editors

The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships for research and education. Today, it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing approximately £80m a year. For more information about the Trust, please visit www.leverhulme.ac.uk and follow the Trust on Twitter @LeverhulmeTrust

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is a Government department created on 14 July 2016 which has responsibility for business, industrial strategy, science and innovation, energy and climate change policy. The UK is a global leader in science, research and innovation, with world class research that underpins a ground-breaking innovation ecosystem, the UK is a great place to work and for businesses to invest and grow. We support UK scientists to work with international experts to exchange knowledge and create opportunities for long term partnerships in areas of scientific merit. Our mission is to lead, promote and nurture excellent Science, Research and Innovation.


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