Kunstsammlung NRW
Fördergerüst und Maschinenhalle, Foto: LWL-Industriemuseum, Annette Hudemann

How Does it Sound? Work With Sounds – A Different Kind of Digital Collection Presentation

When it comes to digital presentations of collections, museum people generally think of big pictures, thoroughly-researched art-historical chronologies, lists of exhibitions and bibliographies, and thorough, gapless provenances. That very different phenomena may be encountered in the realm of digital databanks dealing with objects and collections – sounds, for example – is demonstrated by the ambitious museum project Work With Sounds.             

A look at an online collection of a very different type by Alissa Krusch for #32.

For visitors who have been spoiled by the aesthetically appealing, playful presentations of collections by European and US American museums, the databank "Work With Sounds" doesn't seem all that attractive at first glance. The businesslike project description explains quite straightforwardly that the aim of WWS is to assemble the “endangered or disappearing sounds of industrial society.”

The challenge found behind this statement is as ambitious as it is enthralling: vanishing sounds are to be collected and preserved, thereby institutionalizing a collective project that traverses the continent in order to generate a soundscape of industrial Europe. Two thirds of the support received by the project – which will run for two years, and conclude in September 2015 – comes from museums of cultural history and technology in Poland, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, and Germany, while the remaining third is supplied by the European Union. The German project partner is the LWL-Industriemuseum in Dortmund, part of which is located in the Zeche Zollern, a well preserved 19th-century model mine installation.

In recent months, the partners have recorded, compiled, classified, and described in detail approximately 500 sounds, ranging from the deep fryer in a snack bar all the way to the engine of an icebreaker ship.

The platforms entry point is designed around a large full-text search, and may not appeal immediately to the inexperienced or simply curious user. More attractive in contrast are the categories, which are selected via the function "find your sounds": agriculture, education, fishing, military, trade, public administration. These categories render user access simpler and more attractive – you immediately find yourself in the midst of the sonic offerings.

The sound of night-time flames leaping upward is something that lingers in the ears of anyone who has sat beside a campfire. But what about the noise of the coal mixer that is to remain in use for just a few more years at the Prosper-Haniel Mine in Bottrop? Or the sound of a “fence-making machine” that was in use in Sweden during the 1930s, and became disused in 2013 – presumably rendered obsolete by new manufacturing machinery, or by the displacement of fence production to another country?

The collection of noises focuses on the industrial age of the past two centuries. A few sounds however have an earlier provenance, for example the clockwork from a church tower, preserved at the Museum of Municipal Engineering in Gdansk/Poland, or the wooden bevel gears from seventeenth century water mills on display in Gränna/Sweden.

Of course, this sonic endeavor can hardly do without images altogether: each sound object is accompanied not just by an illustration, but as a rule by an video as well, one that shows the source of the sound in operation. In many instances, this object is a museum exhibit, one that has been set into operation, on an exceptional basis, by museum staff for documentary purposes. In others, the recording device makes a guest appearance at still existing workshops or industrial facilities in order to incorporate the exhibit into the databank.

Each sound is given a descriptive text, dated by decade, and assigned an identifying keyword. The experience of the original sound is accompanied by precise information on how the recording was produced, and in some instances – for example with larger machines – decibel levels are notated as well.

Finally, there is a download link to each sound file. Sounds to go? Definitely! For the museums, it is important that the scientifically conserved sounds do not simply remain on the platform, but instead find pathways toward public attention – for only in this way can this transnational sonic landscape genuinely function. In the humorously composed FAQs that accompany the recordings (which will enter the large-scale digital Europeana program once the project reaches its conclusion), the project partners call attention to the circumstance that all sounds are free of all copyright restrictions, and are covered by a Creative Commons license. The explicit intention is for these materials to be used freely by schools, museums, educational institutions, and art projects. These sonic treasures can even be used for commercial purposes – with the blessing of the researchers, who even add: “Good luck!”

Screenshot: Work With Sounds

Link to Work With Sounds: