Organizers: Carolyn Birdsall (University of Amsterdam), Jochen Hennig (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Britta Lange (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Viktoria Tkaczyk (MPI for the History of Science and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
In 1915, the Berlin phonetician Wilhelm Doegen initiated the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, one of the most systematic enterprises in early sound archiving. For this project, the phonograph and gramophone served as tools to collect and study a wide range of languages, music, and natural sounds. Contributors to the initiative included researchers based in disciplines such as phonetics, linguistics, Oriental and African studies, musicology and anthropology, zoology, medicine, and criminology. Between 1915 and 1918, over 1,030 Edison cylinders with musical recordings (today stored in the Berlin Phonogram Archive) and over 1,650 shellac recordings of the languages of prisoners of war were produced. Today, this collection forms part of the “Lautarchiv of Berlin,” held at the Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
A century after Doegen’s project, this conference reexamines the founding, use, and reuse of sound archives in the humanities and sciences. One of its aims is to contextualize pioneering scientific sound archives, and thus the development of recording technologies, archival practices, and new research methods and disciplines. A second objective is to explore the relationship between the history of scientific sound archiving and the role of contemporary sound archives in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The archive’s centenary also prompts questions about the status of sound archives in the present digital era: providing access to sound records opens up possibilities for new research agendas, but inevitably also raises complex ethical and legal issues.
The first day of the conference will be dedicated to the significance of sound archives for various disciplines in the humanities and sciences. The discussion will engage with three interrelated strands of comparison: (a) founding the archive – the historical emergence of scientific sound archives and collections in various disciplines; (b) using the archive – the history of research in sound archives and shifts in perspectives, for example the definition of these collections as scientific cultural heritage; and (c) making the archive public – the history of public uses of scientific sound collections, and strategies for presenting and engaging with these collections.
The second day focuses on the Berliner Lautarchiv recordings and their potential reuse in the present. Participants will reflect on the epistemic shifts that can be traced from the production of the recordings right up to re-listening in the present. Of particular relevance here are the prisoner-of-war recordings, originally produced for linguistic and anthropological research. One concern is how to reframe these recordings as forms of personal testimony and as cultural heritage for the communities to which the prisoners belonged. The discussion will reflect on ways of facilitating transnational research collaboration and international awareness of the holdings. The conference will conclude with a roundtable on the future context and framing of the Lautarchiv in the projected Humboldt Forum at the Berlin Stadtschloss square.