Sound Archives and the History of Medicine in the Public Sphere

The fourth session of today’s conference dealt with the topic of sound archives, auditory memory, and new strategies to make the history of medicine public. The three presenters focused on the creation and usage of sound archives, as well as making them public. Viktoria Tkaczyk unfortunately could not attend the conference, however, Carolyn Birdsall bravely presented Tkaczyk’s paper in her absence.

Tkaczyk’s research tells the story of the way in which the establishment of early sound archives, in 1930, was linked to research on auditory memory in the field of psychotherapy. Interestingly, there were competing theories on the usage of sound recordings in psychotherapy. While, for example, Freud opposed the use of sound recordings on behalf of an unconscious and associative memory, the advocates of sound records wanted to use them in order to make their research more objective. Thus, the founding of sound archives was supposed to make psychotherapy more scientific.

Birdsall discussed the historical usage of sound in psychotherapy and explained how radios were used for the treatment of mental illness. Hospitals produced their own radio broadcasts as a part of mental health treatment in addition to engaging the public in a discussion about mental health. Birdsall also talked about “found sounds”, which are sounds that are discovered in private archives and used in documentaries about mental health. She emphasized that even in the case of non-institutional sound archives, it is crucial to remember that class and gender influence the foundation of these archives. Even alternative archives presuppose selections and exclusions.

Manon Parry talked about how to make the history of medicine public with the use of sonic artefacts. Beginning in the 1980s anti-psychiatry activists and scholars argued for a de-stigmatization of mental illness and the redefinition of the mental health “patient” as a “client”. As a result of this shift in the field of mental health, the Dolhuys Museum in Haarlem is being developed as a “museum of mind”, rather than a “museum of mental health.” Parry discussed current plans to create a “Listening Museum” based on material from sound archives with the goal of presenting a more complex account of the history of mental health. Thus, sound archives could offer valuable tools to de-stigmatize the definition of the “patient” and mental illness.

In the discussion audience members were particularly interested in the practical challenges of an exhibition that uses sonic objects. How should exhibitors use material from sound archives that were not intended to be displayed in the public sphere? What is an appropriate length for a sound recording in an exhibit and how can they be best presented and/or displayed? How can sonic objects be translated into different languages without depriving them of their emotional dimension which inevitably evokes empathy in the visitors? With the use of sound bytes in museums, how is it possible to convey to contemporary visitors that, due to changing environments, social, and cultural structures, their listening experience differs greatly from their historical counterparts? Although the session did not really touch topics regarding Public History in the digital sphere, it was really interesting and thought-provoking in regard to the field of sound studies.

  • written by Helen Wagner