True Echoes

wax cylinders British Library

Reconnecting indigenous communities with historic audio records of the sung and spoken cultures of Australia and Oceania.

Published date:

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), this research project will transform global understanding and awareness of the rich cultural heritage of indigenous communities in the Pacific region.

The project will utilise recently digitised copies of wax cylinder ethnographic recordings that were originally made by British anthropologists during pioneering research in the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These recordings mark the inaugural use of sound in anthropological research and are included in the UNESCO Memory of the World register in recognition of their unique cultural heritage status.

The project will enhance the visibility and accessibility of these recordings to researchers around the world. It will do so in partnership with the communities whose cultures the recordings represent, enabling new understanding that is informed by local knowledge and cultural memory. We will work with partner institutions in Australia and the Pacific to establish interoperability between our respective catalogues and metadata. This will result in new long-term pathways and platforms for the sharing of documentation and knowledge about indigenous Oceanic cultural heritage.

Alongside this international activity, the project team will research the audio collections at the British Library alongside parallel primary sources in other formats held at partner institutions in the UK. The results will showcase the opportunities for digital reconnection and re-integration of historic collections that are now dispersed across different institutions.

The project will also encompass critical methodological reflection on the impact of reconnecting cultures with their documented cultural traditions in this way, as well as illustrating the value of audio as a primary source for anthropological and broader interdisciplinary research.

Project partners:

  • PARADISEC (Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures – Australia)
  • Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (PNG)
  • Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (Vanuatu)
  • Solomon Islands Archives and Museum (Solomon Islands)
  • Tjibaou Cultural Centre and Kanak Language Academy (New Caledonia)
  • British Museum (UK)
  • Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UK)

The project complements the goals of the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019 by highlighting the valuable resource contained in historic sound recordings for the preservation, understanding and appreciation of indigenous languages. The project team will disseminate findings and engage with researchers, archivists, community groups and other public audiences in the UK, Australia and across Oceania through knowledge exchange placements, articles, films, radio programmes, talks and conferences.

Read the press release (July 2019).