Pitt Rivers Collection: Reel to Real


Podcast produced and presented by Jo Barratt.

“No human sense is more neglected in ethnographic museums than sound”.  The  Reel to Real project at the Pitt Rivers Museum seeks to redress the balance by making available, both in and beyond the museum space itself, the important sound collections donated to the museum over the past 100 years.

In this podcast, the second in our Pitt Rivers series, Jo Barratt and Sarah Winkler Reid from the University of Bristol talk to ethnomusicologist, Dr Noel Lobley about the hundreds of hours of historically important and rare ethnographic sound held in storage in the museum, much of it known only to a handful of scholars. These sound recordings – which range from children’s songs in Britain 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 – have been preserved but until the Real to Real project have remained unavailable to members of the public, teachers, students, or to the communities from which the sound originates.

Listen here to the first podcast, Louis Sarno and the BayAka

Note:  The Reel to Real archive is being made available via SoundCloud


Welcome to the Pitt Rivers museum at the University of Oxford. This is Pod Academy and I’m Jo Barrett. We’re here for a series looking at the ethnographic sound archive at the museum. This episode is going to look in detail at the Reel to Real project and the work being done to make the most of an unappreciated resource. We also hear how sound can contribute to the overall museum experience. Noel Lobley is going to be an ever-present voice in this series as he guides us through several aspects of his work in ethnomusicology and sound archive.

Noel Lobley: My name is Noel Lobley. I work here at the Pitt Rivers museum as an ethnomusicologist. I deal with a lot of the music and sound collections. For the last 18 months or so a lot of my time has been devoted to developing the sound archive. Pulling it out of storage and getting it digitised, heard and available. Also programming events to engage different audiences with the sound collections that we have here.

JB: You will also hear from Sarah Winkler-Reid an anthropologist from the University of Bristol.  Who joined Noel and I in Oxford. For those of you who do not know about the museum, here is Noel to tell us about his place of work.


NL: The Pitt Rivers Museum is the University of Oxford’s museum of anthropology and world archaeology it’s got wonderful ethnographic galleries that are absolutely crammed with hundreds and thousands of objects from cultures all over the world. Some pre-historic, some modern. It was established by General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers who donated his collection here and has been curated here since [sic] 1884.


Henry Balfour was the first curator here, he was a polymath, he was ahead of his time. He was interested in decorative art, sound and music which started the collection of sound here which has been happening for over 100 years. There are photographic, manuscript and massive object collections. What you see in the galleries are used as research, teaching resources, and to engage the general public, such as children and schools. It is a very family friendly museum, it has won awards for being accessible to children. We have our own education department here. It’s a varied and diverse museum, but it is a part of Oxford University.

JB: Noel is here to talk to us about the Reel to Real project which is the focus of this episode. I asked him to sum up the project in one sentence.

NL: Reel to Real is giving the Pitt Rivers’ museum sound collection a voice. Reel to Real is a project designed to digitise, catalogue and make available online, in the museum galleries spaces, and further afield all of our unique ethnographic collections. The project finished this year in March when we launched the website. It was the first concerted attempt to pull together the hundred years of sound collecting we have here. The earliest ethnographic recordings go back as far as 1912. The first concerted attempt to bring them out of storage get them all digitised so that they can all be heard and attract further research projects.

Sarah Winkler-Reid: Why weren’t the recordings being used prior to this?

NL: It is a practical answer. A sound archive can exist in various states. For a long time these recordings were simply in storage. In many of the cases, we didn’t have the means of playing them.  So our formats going back to wax cylinders,    copper matrices, steel wire, reel to reel, audio cassette and DAB.  Obviously, increasingly, it all has to be outsourced an dif you have the money, engineers at the British Library and elsewhere can salvage sound from anywhere – it can even be taken off old pieces of tin foil!  We didn’t have the equipment or the infrastructure to do that, we just had a mass of recordings waiting to be processed.  A few of them did circulate in response to requests but a typical response from the sound archive would be, ‘I’m sorry, it’s simply not available at the moment.’  The recordings have been built up, amassed.   That’s quite typical of sound archives.  Our sound collection here came in as part of other collections.  Pritchard’s cylinders came in with his objects, his photos.  The sound ended up being put aside.  Material anthropology was popular at the time, ‘let’s look at objects’, and the anthropology of sound was non-existent.  The sound collection became the ‘orphan collection’ – they’re orphans and yet they are so integral to everything else going on – both in terms of collecting, and, of course, the cultures where they came from.  We’ve really got to re-integrate them back in there.  It’s actually a practical answer.

JB: So you had to come up with practical responses.  Is there anything else you struggled with?  Either from an organisational point of view or perhaps how to make sense of the data?

NL:  From our perspective here there’s not really a precedent for curating sound, so I knew that was both the challenge and what was exciting about it  – we could be original. If there had been 20 years of sound curation, then you’d be following the mould.  We were influenced by the curatorial models that already apply here for objects and images, but sound is very different.

We catalogued everything, using the internal cataloguing systems, but we’ve had to develop newer ways of dealing with things.  For example, you can stream all the sound files through the database, so you’ve got the information and you can hear what it is. Sound has to be dealt with in real time.  There is no shortcut.  I had to go through all 1000 hours of Louis Sarno’s recordings – 1500 hours now because 500 hours turned up during the project! – it’s more than real time.  That’s a huge challenge for time.  But there is no shortcut, if you don’t hear it, you don’t know what’s in it

 SWR:  Do you sit there just listening to it, or are you doing other things at the same time?

NL: A bit of both!  It took years!  Just digitising that collection took the best part of a year.

Louis Sarno has made a 45 minute tape or a 2 hour DAB, and it might have 30 events on it.  No one is going to pick their way through that other than a very patient researcher.  So I knew the whole thing needed to be edited.   I went through it, sometimes dedicated with headphones on, making observations about what’s in the collection – not always knowing because I didn’t make the recordings, and I’m learning more and more about the culture, but they’re not my recordings – though I can make guesses based on my training.

Some of the ceremonies go on for 2 hours, and I had them on at home a lot.  My 3 year old son has heard more BayAka music probably than anyone on the planet because it’s in our flat all the time.  My colleague Chris Morton said, ‘you do know you’re the only person in the entire world who is ever going to hear the whole collection.’  To which I responded, ‘Twice!’

So sometimes it is very close attention, and sometimes you can let it go past you while doing other things – cataloguing,  researching – but sometimes you have to do nothing but listen to it, and make observations

JB:  What percentage of what’s available will you be able to get out there?  What are your plans for the collection?

NL:  It was originally a full time project for a year, but it ended up running for 15 months.  In the funding application, I estimated that we could get all our ethnographic recordings catalogued,  digitised, but we couldn’t get it all online. We thought we’d only get introductory playlist available to show people what’s in those collections and we are now at a new stage of the sound project where we’re building on everything we did.  It could all be put online, but it’s not going to be at the moment – maybe in the future.

We have a premium SoundCloud account (with a normal account you can upload 2 hours or 2 gb).  A premium account is quite expensive because of the bandwidth involved – it’s unlimited, we could conceivably put the whole of Sarno’s collection up there on SoundCloud, just like some of the other big accounts such as the London Sound Survey.  The implication is that you could get a lot of requests, so there has to be a curatorial structure in place, to enable that.  So that’s a potential outcome, not one that is designed to be delivered at this stage.

JB:  And you know there’s also questionable value of hours and hours without curatorial reference from you.  You want somebody to look through it and pick out what’s important and explain it.

NL:  Yes, what I liked about Soundcloud – and I always knew I wanted SoundCloud as the platform for delivery – is that it looks good, is easy to use, and puts you alongside unexpected audiences, because it is basically for commercial music.  When I was in touch with them, telling them what we wanted to do, saying if we could have a free premium account then we’d obviously credit them as a collaborator etc,  Ben Fawkes  of SoundCloud wrote back immediately and said, in short, ‘Of course! We’re really interested in how SoundCloud can be used for ethnographic sound archiving.’  And that enabled us to have unlimited upload.

But yes, putting everything up in a non discriminating way is not the right thing to do.  It would be wrong to put up 1000 hours of Louis Sarno’s material, what is better is for me to slowly put up playlists as we go along.  Putting things up in un-navigable ways is not the way to curate sound.  I love the idea that someone listening to a Rhianna song might stumble across one of our tunes from Colombia and might want to respond in some way. But if you want more information, it must be there.  The links go from SoundCloud to our website, so you can navigate through it.  You don’t have access to our internal catalogue, but that could be put on line in due course.

All the Pitt Rivers photographic collections have been digitised and are available online, so any image you are interested in, you can pull up a web page and pull off a JPEG. There is no reason that couldn’t be done with sound.

JB:  But how is sound incorporated in museums for people who are just visiting for the afternoon? How might they encounter recorded sound?

NL:  Putting it back out in the galleries is a technical challenge, but we’ve got a lot of sound engineers, so it is solveable.

How the sound impacts on the atmosphere and what people want from a museum, the delivery of it, that’s a challenge too.

There are different ways of designing and engineering this.  There are audio guides, where people come in and listen to selected themes, related to the cases they are looking at.  There are sound samples for some of the instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, for example.  That is a traditional, slightly dated way of doing it (in terms of how people want to experience sound).

But it’s not a huge area for museums. They are, after all, thought of as quiet, reflective places – and that is how some visitors and curators want them.

We put together a Sound in Museums Network  last year as part of the Reel to Real project and brought some really interesting sound curators together.  Like Sound Field  for example – the only gallery, to my knowledge, devoted to sound.  They have installations, and they have ethnographers coming in to do presentations.  Interlinked events, public events, performance etc.

The Foundling Museum  have a folk museum where musicians come in and perform.  Our composer in residence, Nathaniel Mann recently went and did a set for them, supporting Martin Carthy.  Nathaniel had written pieces related  to children and things related to the museum – they’d found an old broadside and he’d set a new song to the broadside.

So one approach is creative artists coming in and doing sound.

And you can get more immersive installations, though that isn’t something most people want in museums all the time.  They don’t necessarily want a soundscape that dominates.  The soundscape is in some ways the ambient soundscape of engagement.

We also put together a workshop called, Delivering Ethnographic Sound, where we invited a lot of top level sound engineers and some anthropologists and sound curators, some designers, and we said, ‘here’s the archive, here’s the gallery, what would you do ?’  Some people were interested in doing multi-layered maps that are triggered as you move through space, done via smart phones or QR codes, so you can pick and design your own pathway through the gallery, so everyone has their own soundscape.  We had some engineers interested in delivering the Louis Sarno sound archive back in the Central African Republic, they can design it from here, back to there – of course there are infrastructure issues, costs and the ethics of whether it is the right thing to do – but is suggests what is possible.

So these are all possibilities, and we’ve been thinking through some of them, but at this level we got to a design phase and with Nathaniel our composer, we think a lot about how to deliver sound ‘out there’.  If you think about Pitt Rivers, where we were earlier this morning, it’s not performance space – there isn’t a stage out there (we were up in the Clore gallery, and musicians are normally in the Clore balcony  or the galleries, on wireless mics) – but it is an amazing listening space.  Myself and Nathaniel, we’ve both played and performed in lots of different venues, in lots of different places , and we both agree that a gallery like that, the Pitt Rivers, is an amazing listening space.  It is something to do with the many different distractions that are in there and pathways that are in there – the fact that nothing dominates.  Even the totem pole doesn’t dominate after a while.  And it changes your perception of what you’re listening to.  It’s a very, very unusual listening space.

The museum is all about discovery.  Discovering something around the corner.  And we’ve been thinking about how you integrate sound into that.   If, for example, you just discover the sound, rather than say, ‘here you go, here’s a band’, or ‘here you go, here’s a record’. How does sound become part of the discovery experience?  Some of it is simple technology and some of it is complicated technology.

Twice a year we have big ‘night at the museum’ events which are across the museum.  Increasingly, for the last few, we have worked sound in, as part of the experience.  Basically what happens is that the lights are turned off, so those ethnographic galleries out there, that are already quite dark and hidden, become very dark.  The visitors get given a torch to explore.  They walk into the galleries that are bathed in sound, and the sound is from our collections so it’s not just some afro-loop.

For the event last November 23rd, myself and Nathanial Mann, our composer in residence, designed a 4 hour soundscape of BayAka music from the rainforest of the Central African Republic and Northern Congo – designed to turn those galleries into a rainforest environment.  Projections on the ceiling, rainforest images.  We were thinking through how you integrate that within the galleries and the images and get people to really respond to the music, because BayAka music is quite often participatory, in some of the ceremonies, everybody joins in, there’s a place for the young, the child learning as well as the master singer.  We thought through how we wanted people to experience the music.  We didn’t want to be didactic and start talking about polyrhythms and polymedia and all the stuff that bores most people, we wanted them to experience it.  So we bathed the galleries in this sound.

We wanted to link images and sound, so we came up with the following idea: You see examples of sound waves in close up, and you see a drum skin, and you can trace how it was designed in the sand.  Nathaniel and I visualised how we could project images from the Louis Sarno collection – images of rainforest life and social issues, hunting parties, things like that, that were revealed behind the sound wave going across the screen.  Projected onto the darkened galleries was the sound wave of the music being played, which revealed the image behind it.  The sound wave was also driven by sensitive internal microphones, so anyone would notice that if they clapped or did something it registered on the sound wave – you could affect the sound wave and see more or less of the image.  As soon as people realised this they began to join in with the music.  People began to join in, making the move from passive to active – and we were streaming it live on the web, so people had a portal to look in, becausethe events were over-subscribed.  Nearly 4000 people came in between our event and next door, across the night.  There were big queues to get in, it was all free – a real test.

We told Louis Sarno, and when I got back into work on Monday, Louis and some of his BayAka friends whose music this is, and some of the people performing in the sounds we had in the galleries, had walked through the rainforest from Uandumbe where they lived to get to Bayanga, which is the nearest small town.  There is a WWF office there and a satellite phone and they all gathered round the satellite phone and looked in and watched their music being curated here.  They were very proud, they identified certain songs that they could hear and that they wanted copies of, and got an idea of how their collection is being used here.

Long term, that relationship really interests me –  that’s the much longer term stage of my research on the Sarno collection.  Part of my contention is that you can’t assume it’s going to be valuable to the communities who made the music, because they might not care, they might have moved on.  If it’s a hundred years ago, they might not know much about it.  If it skipped 2 or 3 generations, but when there is a pathway, a connection back, to where the music came from, it tends to be quite powerful, and it tends to complete things in a way that the rest of us can’t.  It’s what struck me when I was in the Eastern Cape of South Africa – we knew what German academics think about the Xhosa recordings, but we didn’t know what Xhosa musicians thought about the recordings.  It is their culture, their music, surely they know something we don’t about these things.  I think that’s an interesting model for how you can use sound in different ways

JB:   How can listeners to this podcast access the audio collections?

NL:  There are several ways to do it.  We have the project website, called Reel to Real.  That gives a good overview of the sound collection – 14 main ethnographic collections, there are generous playlists from each collection.  That’s a general introduction, it’s not overly academic, it’s aimed at general audiences, researchers, and schools and general interest.  And we have a lot of our sounds uploaded onto SoundCloud, beyond the playlists that are available.  The obvious way is to keep an eye on the project blog  which deals more generally with sound at the museum beyond Reel to Real and the ethnographic collections.  The Reel to Real project was just about our ethnographic field collections.  We also have a big sound archive still in storage, which includes commercial recordings, recordings by UNESCO and other recordings donated like the big collection of African recordings donated by the International Library of African Music.  We haven’t dealt with those at the moment, they are still in storage.  So Reel to Real is just the ethnographic collections, that is what we wanted to make available.

The series of our public events that are designed to integrate sound back into the galleries,  part of the idea of that is to move people towards the idea of sound as experience, rather than sound as just something that we listen to in a slightly detached way.  We consider any request from people who want to engage with our sound archive, and we’ll be considering them on a case by case basis.  There are lots of different ways you can access these recordings and as other people come in with different ideas, it tends to go in different directions.  So the research access is one thing (research appointments) and we have researchers who come in and just want to sit and listen. The obvious opening point is the SoundCloud account, the website and then perhaps there are other ways to experience it as well.




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