Hearing History

By Carlene Stephens
Curator, Division of Work and Industry
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

We’ve got the routine down pat now.

My colleague Shari Stout lines up the fragile recording on the stage of the instrument and then steps back. The scan of the battered 130-year-old sound recording begins, as does our wait for a high-resolution image of the disc’s surface. Sometimes it takes hours.

Usually Shari and I pass the time reading and chatting with Peter Alyea, in whose audio digital conversion lab at the Library of Congress we are working. Space is tight. Carl Haber, visiting from his own physics lab at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), sits an arm’s length away at the computer and monitors the scan. Carl’s colleague Earl Cornell, a continent away, often joins us by phone when we need his advice. This is a typical work session with IRENE, a leading-edge audio preservation system, scarcely a decade old, which originated at LBL. IRENE is an acronym for the steps involved in recovering sound from a recording: Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.

Peter Alyea, 2011. Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Peter Alyea, 2011. Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Suddenly, with no warning, sound comes from the computer speakers, and we quiet down to listen. A voice recorded in the 1880s speaks, released from a disc that hasn’t been played since then.

We’ve repeated this process now with about a dozen recordings. And every time, at that moment when an old voice revives with the help of this new technology, I find myself awed and speechless, thrilled to the point that hair stands up on the back of my neck. It’s become my personal salute to those long-dead voices reaching us across time.

Shari and I have carefully carried recordings from our collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to the Library of Congress since 2011, when the Institute of Museum and Library Services began funding a new phase of Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s development of IRENE, a system for reviving sound from audio recordings too damaged or broken for ordinary playback. In that phase, our experimental recordings from the 1880s, made in Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., joined items from collections at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the University of Chicago’s South Asia Library, the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, and the Edison National Historic Site.

Photo of a graphophone

Graphophone: recorded in October 1881
Content: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I am a graphophone and my mother was a phonograph.”
Voice of Alexander Melville Bell, AGB’s father.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Our very unusual recordings are some of the earliest ever made, and they present special technical challenges to Peter, Carl, Earl, and IRENE. Each of these recordings predates any standardized format. Each represents an experiment with particular materials, like a special mix of wax and paraffin, or with a particular recording or playback method. Some were recorded with a vibrating stylus, others with a beam of light. All are fragile, some are badly cracked, and still others are deformed.

Thanks to our partners’ considerable efforts and to our generous funders, we have seen remarkable results. We’ve heard various male voices reciting Shakespeare, repeating nursery rhymes, and reading from publications of their day. And we’ve been able to identify speakers on two of the scanned discs as Alexander Graham Bell and his father, Alexander Melville Bell. My favorite recording so far is the first one we scanned: in homage to a favorite scientific instrument, one male voice enthusiastically articulates, syllable by syllable, “ba-ro-me-ter, ba-ro-me-ter, ba-ro-me-ter.”

Photo of green wax disk

Hamlet green wax disc: Unknown recording date, but probably 1884-85
Disc recording in green wax on brass holder, probably 1885. Content: male voice reciting opening lines of “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet

And, just a few weeks ago, we opened an exhibition at the National Museum of American History to share our findings so far. Visitors can learn about both the Volta Laboratory recordings and our current efforts to revive them in “Hear My Voice”: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound (through October 25, 2015; americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/hear-my-voice).

Posted in Collections Care/Preservation, Cultural Heritage/Sustainability, National Leadership Grants | Leave a comment

Digging Up an Appetite for Health at The New York Botanical Garden

By Annie Novak, Manager of The Edible Academy
Elizabeth Peterson-Minor, Associate Director of Foundation Relations
The New York Botanical Garden

The cold and snow could not stop the nation’s cultural institutions from celebrating the fifth anniversary of Let’s Move! this February. Founded by First Lady Michelle Obama, this national initiative gets children moving and eating healthy foods. That is exactly what they did at The New York Botanical Garden, where our Carla Hall’s Culinary Kids Week (February 16-22) coincided with the Let’s Move! festivities. Children and families participated in a variety of hands-on activities and demonstrations focused on edible gardening and healthy eating.

Carla Hall receives help from an aspiring young chef for a delicious—and healthy!—broccoli pesto.]

Carla Hall receives help from an aspiring young chef for a delicious—and healthy!—broccoli pesto. Image from The New York Botanical Garden

The event brought together partner organizations from across New York City to offer dynamic perspectives on food. To kick off the festival, celebrity chef Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s The Chew, took to the stage with some young volunteers to make a new twist on an old favorite: a savory broccoli pesto. It was quite the hit!

Throughout the rest of the week, other professional chefs hosted daily cooking demonstrations where they wowed the crowd, offered tips and samples, and shared their stories with aspiring young cooks. Visitors also engrossed themselves in worm-based composting, potting up edible plant seeds for springtime growing at home, grinding grain, sampling herbal teas, and other activities. At hands-on workshops, children became the chefs. Their culinary creations included salads, pickles, and even homemade pasta. “Excellent, enriching program and a knowledgeable, friendly staff,” one visitor commented. The event was described as “welcoming and wonderful.”

Visitors learn how to make worm bins, a skill they can use to make compost for home gardening

Visitors learn how to make worm bins, a skill they can use to make compost for home gardening. Image from The New York Botanical Garden

Carla Hall’s Culinary Kids Week was presented through our Edible Academy, a platform of edible gardening-based programs that engage children, families, and teachers in the entire garden-to-table process. Thanks to support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and other generous funders, The Edible Academy will soon be part of a year-round, indoor/outdoor complex—an edible gardening hub in New York City.

Programs such as Carla Hall’s Culinary Kids Week encourage visitors to make better food choices. We believe that such initiatives offer participants personal connections with and access to healthy foods. They also teach food preparation skills to help ensure that vegetables, fruits, and herbs are a part of every child’s life. These programs, combined with the many other wonderful Let’s Move! initiatives at museums and gardens across the country, truly are building a healthier future for today’s children.

Young chefs learn how to make nutritious, colorful, and delicious salads.

Young chefs learn how to make nutritious, colorful, and delicious salads. Image from The New York Botanical Garden

About The New York Botanical Garden
An unforgettable departure from the everyday, The New York Botanical Garden is America’s premier urban garden. Its special exhibitions, seasonal programs, and engaging activities inspire visitors of every age and interest. The Botanical Garden is an ever-changing living museum, and a showplace of natural beauty and wonder. For more information, visit nybg.org or call 718.817.8700.

Posted in Health, Let's Move! Museums & Gardens | Leave a comment

Taking Note: More Resources for Arts Data-Miners

Ed. Note: This blog was originally posted on the National Endowment for the Arts’ Art Works blog. To view the original post, click here

By Sunil Iyengar
NEA Director of Research & Analysis

Paintings in the gallery at the Delaware Art Museum

Delaware Art Museum by flickr user Jeffrey.

The nation’s museums and libraries are taking prodigious steps to bring their most prized collections of artistic and cultural heritage online. But what about data concerning those institutions? If we increasingly have the chance to view a painting, piece of sculpture, or rare manuscript from any location, then how easy is it to access basic stats about those items, to run them through analysis without cumbersome software, and to create visualizations that can be shared on multiple platforms?

The Institute of Museum & Library Services, under the intrepid leadership of Director of Planning, Research, and Evaluation Carlos Manjarrez, is on the case. Manjarrez and his talented staff have created an open data catalog at data.imls.gov.

Powered by the firm Socrata, the site currently hosts at least three major data sources: administrative data covering past IMLS grant recipients from 1996 to 2013; a “census” of U.S. museums, itself flowing from a combination of survey and administrative data; and 20 years of survey data from U.S. libraries.

Offering more than the data alone, the IMLS site lets users build original reports and visualizations of the data, and it enables web developers and/or “hackers” to grab APIs of these datasets for the purpose of styling new apps.

This new service, like IMLS’ regular participation in data hackathons, is part of the agency’s efforts to make good on the President’s “open data” and “open government” initiatives. The NEA has its own game afoot: later this year, we intend to roll out the first of a series of new and improved Arts Data Profile pages, with interactive data visualizations to accompany descriptive statistics on a host of arts-related research topics. And a few months ago we launched the National Archive of Data on Arts & Culture, a growing library of arts-related datasets and their technical documentation. Finally, on the Research page of the NEA website, the public can download reports stemming from projects that received funding under the agency’s Research: Art Works program.

The Office of Research & Analysis will spend much of 2015 not only on expanding these resources, but on finding ways to track their utility among researchers and policy-makers so that we can anticipate shifts in demand and adjust our products accordingly.

Posted in 21st Century Skills, Information Infrastructure/Systems/Workflows, Learning Tools and Interactives (Information/Media literacy), Research | Leave a comment