Sound and vision blog

20 May 2014

Sonic migrations: natural sounds on the international exhibition scene

The British Library is home to one of the largest and most important collections of wildlife and environmental sounds in the world. Coming in at over 160,000 recordings that cover all animal groups and biogeographical regions, the archive has served the needs of researchers for more than 40 years, both at home and further afield.

The collection is more than just a source of data for academics though. For curators and exhibition teams it has been, and continues to be, an Aladdin's cave of audio treasures that have the ability to
breathe life into inanimate objects and enhance the visitor experience.

A variety of chirps, clicks, hums and whistles can currently be heard around the upper ground floor of the British Library, as visitors to the Beautiful Science exhibition explore the voices of 100 species, from birds to amphibians,that have been specially added to the OneZoom Tree of
Life installation.


Bottlenose Dolphin recorded by Dr Oliver Boisseau

Song Thrush recorded by Richard Savage

On the other side of London, at South Kensington's Victoria and Albert Museum, birdsong from the collection weaves its way around the artefacts on display in the museum's current exhibition William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain. The quintessential sounds of the British countryside merge with music from the time to create a multilayered atmosphere that is part natural, part human. Moving along to Richmond, an Amazonian rainforest soundscape, recorded and created by Richard Ranft, will soon take up residency in the Palm House of Kew Gardens, a few months after it featured as the soundtrack to their annual Orchid Festival.

Extract from Rainforest Requiem

The use of recordings from the collection is not restricted to the UK alone either. Across the pond, in a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, a range of wildlife and environmental sounds from our collection are being used to complement the books, drawings and prints on display. 'Of Green Leaf, Bird & Flower: artists' books and the natural world' examines the intersections of artistic and scientific interest in the natural world from the sixteenth century to the present day and provided Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, with the perfect opportunity to source audio content from the British Library:

"The bird sounds and environmental recordings of the British countryside have enhanced our visitor’s experience of the exhibition beyond all expectations.  They are being asked to curate their own experience, choosing the tracks on the ipod based on their interest in particular birds or sounds.  We illustrated each track with a picture of the work in the exhibition so visitors can then go find the drawing or print as a bit of a treasure hunt.  Visitors seem thrilled by the opportunity." 

European robin_ba-orb-11411486-0015-pub
James Bolton, European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) with Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.), from the natural history cabinet of Anna Blackburne, ca. 1768, watercolor and gouache over graphite on parchment. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, in honor of Jane and Richard C. Levin, President of Yale University (1993–2013)

Robin recorded by Alan Burbidge

In 2012, a number of bird songs were featured in the exhibition 'Between Heaven & Earth: birds in ancient Egypt' at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago while a few years earlier, a selection of avian recordings were set alongside exhibits at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Our sounds have helped visitors at the Science Museum of Minnesota examine the biological roots of music and have formed part of a travelling exhibition against animal cruelty in Syria.

In addition to natural sounds, the collection also contains a range of mechanical field recordings, from steam trains to watermills. Last year a few of our railway recordings helped bring to life the long silent engines on display at the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone.

"This is really going to bring history alive for a lot of people who have never seen - let alone
heard - a train move before" Tim Dunn, Marketing Communications Officer, National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone

Steam age railway station

The evocative nature of sound lends itself extremely well to exhibitions dominated by paper-based artefacts. More than just an embellishment, sound offers a new level of stimulation and exploration for visitors, inviting them to interact with the exhibition environment on more than just a visual level.

Providing recordings for inclusion in external exhibitions helps us fulfil our commitment to move beyond these four walls and share our wonderful collections with listeners all over the world. Public
engagement is at the heart of what we do and the knowledge that our sounds may help educate, inspire or simply bring enjoyment to visitors is something we feel very proud of.


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