Amsterdam – Public history sound

Our main concern with these lectures are their lack of a public approach, with the exception of Manon Parry. They were more focussed on the historical aspect of the sound archives and less on the pragmatic solutions to make them more approachable for the larger public. The presentations lacked interactive components that a vivid presentation, especially on a congress on Public History, should have. The Dolhuys presentation formed a good base to build upon, but it lacked expertise. For example the speaker was able to stress the importance of testimonies but didn’t know how the incorporate it and show it to the public.

We will discuss the speakers individually, which will enable us to come to a better understanding of the session and allow us to formulate a conclusion and hopefully start an interesting discussion on the use of sound in museums and the significance sound archives.

Viktoria Tkaczyk presented the foundation of sound archives and memory research around the 1900’s.  The first sound archives were developed around 1900. Psychologists started to record their session, because they thought it was a more objective way to treat their patients. They didn’t have to rely on their short term memory and their notes. It allowed them to revisit the sessions to be certain of their treatment. It also enabled them to share their thoughts on the medical conditions far more detailed than ever before, since more and more psychologists started to publish their transcriptions. The biggest disadvantage of the time was that the technology wasn’t yet as well developed as nowadays. They were only able to record about 8 minutes with devices that were rather huge. Perhaps it was due to her absence that it was mainly focused on the historical part and that the presentation was less vivid.

The second speaker was Carolyn Birdsall. She started with a small introduction on the different treatments of mental patients in the 19th and 20th century. There was a shift to a more comprehensive approach, they became less a subject to be studied and more an individual person in society with thoughts and feelings. She pointed out that sound wasn’t only used by the doctors to document their patients, but also to improve their mental health. The first hospital radios were introduced during the First World War and became very popular later on in the asylums, as a way to give the patients some peace of mind. As the general public was still in the dark on most of the developments in the field of psychiatry, they introduced radio sessions with mental health patients and professionals. She posed the question whether the radio was a cause or cure in the treatment. It remained a question as she was unable to make it more concrete for the audience.

As we pointed out at the beginning of our review this part of the session, presented by Manon Parry, came closest to what we describe as public history. It should be more a history for the people with interactive components and less focused on the historian in his ivory tower. We define three key components; research, education and the economical aspect. The historian has to translate his research in a comprehensive educational and an economically viable project. Of course he doesn’t stand alone, he has to co-operate with other disciplines. This will lead to a more innovative and creative way to present the material to the public. The historian also has to be willing to leave his ivory tower to go in a discussion with other disciplines like communication studies or, in this case, psychology. Although her presentation allowed the beginning of such a discussion, it would have been interesting to do this with professionals from other disciplines. Maybe it would be a good idea to keep this in mind for future congresses.

Manon Parry presented the Dolhuys as a museum of the mind. In contrast to the traditional way of presenting psychiatrist history, they introduced testimonies. Not only was the interaction between sound and object interesting, the fact that there was no bias or prejudice based on the visualization of the patient allowed the public to form a more objective view. In this way the objects were more contextualized and the patient became less abnormal. Parry points out that this innovative way of presenting the stories allows the public to reformulate their image presented by the popular culture in movies like One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. She also stresses out that the mental hospitals were built to help the people with their problems instead of being the torture dungeons that are often presented in the psychiatry museum of scientology, just to name one of them. Contextualization is vital for a nuanced and critical view on the subject.

In general we had the impression that it were three lose projects which they tried to link together. It seemed as the first two projects were the necessary background for the last presentation. The stress on the historical background overshadowed the purpose of the session, which was to give the audience the tools to debate on the proper use and presentation of sound archives and fragments. After all, the public historian shares an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.

Justin Lambrecht

Dennis Marin

Diethard Vlaeminck