Play/back: The Challenge of Selection in Audio Archives

A couple weeks ago, on September 30, the NEH sponsored “Play/back,” a symposium on audiovisual preservation. As one of the planners of the event, I put together a panel of archivists and scholars who talked about collection building. Originally created around the theme of “Appraising Our Audiovisual Heritage,” the panel discussed various projects that have created or identified materials that are of use to humanities-focused inquiry, including community representation, oral history, documentation, jazz history, and new modes of analysis. Here’s a lightly edited version of my introduction to the panel:

Let me begin by telling you a bit more about the spirit and ideas that frame this session. We are all here because we care about addressing the many hurdles remain in our race to steward and ensure meaningful access to audiovisual cultural heritage resources. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of the major challenges: Many reports from the cultural heritage sector have focused attention on the physical degradation of legacy audio and moving image recordings; much playback equipment may be nearing the end of usable life and replacement parts are difficult to come by; and needs remain to convey the knowledge and skills and educate new professionals in transferring legacy media. The large amount of recorded material on at-risk analog formats, and the growing amounts created and preserved digitally, may exceed the resources available to manage this content for the long term, which suggests that we face pressing issues about selecting content to be preserved; these choices will carry critical consequences for the cultural heritage community. At the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives meeting, held at the Library of Congress earlier this week, Will Prentice from the British Library voiced this issue when he asked: “If we carry on with business as usual, will we be able to save our audio and moving image collections?”

Humanists and others must lend their voices to the preservation conversation, particularly to inform the choices around selection of audio recordings for preservation, rather than leaving the issue to benign neglect or survival of the fittest.

In some ways akin to the “Brittle Books” crisis, in which NEH played a major part in the 1990s, the challenge of preserving audiovisual materials is complex. Many items are in unknown condition and are scattered among institutions. Some are held by public and private institutions, others by individual collectors. The combination of physical degradation and the absence of playback equipment has led some to declare that these materials must be reformatted in the near future, perhaps within a 10 to 15 year time horizon, or risk being permanently lost. In the 1990s, as the preservation community feared the loss of millions of volumes to the “slow fire” of acidic paper, Patricia Battin, recipient of a 1999 Humanities Medal, suggested that humanists and others have an “obligation” to lend their voices to the conversation, particularly to inform the “difficult choices” around selection for preservation, rather than leaving the issue to benign neglect or survival of the fittest.

Such issues were among those that motivated NEH to sponsor this symposium. But our hope in this event is to look into meaningful actions that we are taking now, to spark productive collaboration, and to spur this cross-domain conversation: to bring together archivists, scholars, educators, and other humanists who have a stake in using and accessing audio and moving image resources, but may be isolated from the work of preservation. Humanists, including oral historians, anthropologists, musicologists, linguists, and folklorists, along with educators, students, and cultural producers, are often unaware of the technical challenges involved in preserving audiovisual materials. As more content is turned or created digital, the methods for effectively analyzing it, discovering it, and making use of it in research and teaching remain underdeveloped. YET, Humanists can articulate the value of audiovisual content for research, teaching, and other cultural heritage work; as a whole, humanities scholars need to become more fully engaged with the serious threat facing our audiovisual heritage. So we hope that what you learn today, and the connections you make here, will seed new conversations and foster further collaboration.

In this spirit of dialogue, we’re structuring our first panel session as a prepared conversation, which we hope leads to further discussions in the breakout sessions to follow. This session, titled “Appraising Audiovisual Heritage,” was designed around ideas theorized by archivists, that of determining whether and why items and collections resources should be sustained for the Long Term.

We hope that the ideas of the session serve as a starter for our cross-domain conversation. As it’s come together, I see that the panel will discuss ways of identifying the sorts of activities that audio and moving image materials support in humanities work, how they may be accessed and repurposed, and we hope, articulate the value of preserving content for these engaging modes in which we communicate human stories.

These were followed by four great presenters, who provided examples of their work:

Video and transcripts of these presentations are in production for the NEH website, so check there soon for more!

I’ve also posted an essay version of this medium.com titled “Play/back: The Challenge to Select in Audio Archives”.

Thinking Public Musicology

On Thursday, a few colleagues and I will present a panel discussion on “public musicology” at the 2015 College Music Society meeting in Indianapolis. Here are my initial thoughts on what we might mean by “public musicology”:

I ended our panel abstract [see below] with a quote from the novelist E.M. Forster, “Only connect.” The phrase serves as an epigram to his novel Howard’s End (1910). In the novel, the characters living in the late Victorian era struggle with making and maintaining connections. The epigraph appears to place a positive value on making connections – at one point in the novel, Forster describes the phrase as a “sermon” to connect the prose of life with the passion so as to “live in fragments no longer.” However, the novel also explores the despair and difficulty of making such connections while the characters struggle with different issues of class, wealth, taste, and social convention. As we were discussing a potential theme for this panel, sponsored by the Ethnomusicology Advisory Council of the College Music Society, it seemed a fitting metaphor. All members of the society are doing creative outreach, diligently devoted to their performances, teaching, and other aspects of their work, and it is sometimes difficult to see where and the connections between the exceedingly rich and varied activities of our CMS can be made. We therefore wanted to join together some of the recent insights, from the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major, to the challenges of dialogue between the various disciplines that come together in CMS, and also to the currently vibrant work in public scholarship, including work happening at the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as others engaged in what some have described as “alt-ac” careers.

You may know that this is not unexplored territory, so the job of the panel is not to define what public musicology might be but rather to explore and elucidate various approaches that might fall within this rubric. Feedback and thoughts are welcome!

The panel is described as follows:

From folk festivals to orchestra concerts, music is inescapably a social and public phenomenon; and from music bloggers to popular performers, musicians are public figures. Yet, the voice of scholars and musicians has often not connected beyond the academy. This panel discussion will explore approaches to “public musicology” – that is, making musical knowledge open, accessible, and available beyond the academic and classroom spheres – from perspectives of scholars, performers, and teachers.  Music is more present than ever – via digital delivery to personal music players; from greater diversity of musical styles and crossovers pushed by increasing global flows of culture, trade, and media; and through massive, open, online courses with lengthy menus of musical offerings. We consider the promise of these avenues while acknowledging some of the difficulties and accompanying challenges.  We ask: How can we train our students to be active in more public spaces through engaging scholarship and performances?  What is our role making musical knowledge, understanding, and appreciation more accessible and open to new audiences and what are the best techniques for doing so? What venues, formats, and spaces, including digital platforms, provide the most compelling “interfaces” for engagement? How can we make our music studies resonate with the musical and cultural realities beyond academia?   We follow Forster’s injunction to “only connect” by bringing together these varied voices and encouraging dialogue among the audience to share related projects and commentary.

Ecomuseums 2014

Interested in the cultural, ecological, and knowledge potentials of museums? Interested in how museums can bring together and sustain communities? If so, you might be interested in the Ecomuseums conference. The call for papers for Ecomuseums 2014 is now open and will accept submissions until the end of February. Here’s how the conference organizers describe the conference’s focus and roots:

Ecomuseums 2014 – 2nd International Conference on Ecomuseums, Community Museums and Living Communities follows the path established by its first conference and (as the predecessor) aims at gathering scholars, academics and practitioners working in the areas of Ecomuseums and Community Museums all over the world in an event that may contribute to the global discussion and understanding of the ecomuseums and community museums phenomena.

The ecomuseum movement has its origins in late 1960’s France when the roles museums can play in linking people, their heritage expressions and places, as well as affecting social change, were examined. At this time, traditional museum activities, which centered on the collection of heritage to be interpreted by curators and other museum professionals within a museum building, were viewed as both limited and exclusive in approach.

 In more recent decades, ecomuseums have been established throughout the world and are guided by a variety of differing aims and objectives. For example, an ecomuseum may resemble a more conventional museum in appearance or, in other cases, an open–air community-controlled heritage project, depending on the place.

 It can be considered that this wide range of ecomuseological and community-based museological initiatives demonstrates an international interest in alternative heritage management approaches. For this reason, Ecomuseums 2012 seeks to bring together scholars, researchers, architects and heritage professionals to discuss the commonalities, differences and future of safeguarding practices that are holistic and community oriented in scope.

Conference presentations and panels are accepted from those in any stage of their career or research process, as long as they are somewhat along the following themes:

  1. Community-based museological approaches: challenges, opportunities, practices
  2. The evolution and geographical diaspora of ecomuseum practices
  3. Beyond ecomuseums: Sociomuseology, its theory and practice
  4. Place, communities and heritage: relationships and ecomuseological interventions
  5. Nature,culture and communities: making connections through ecomuseology
  6. The economuseum movement: conserving traditional crafts
  7. Tourism, environment and sustainability: ecomuseological approaches
  8. Working with ethnic minorities: community museology and indigenous curation
  9. Intangible cultural heritage: its significance to local communities and how museums/ecomuseums can assist in safeguarding
  10. Architecture and spatial planning: ecomuseological and inclusive approaches
  11. Urban ecomuseums: conceptual issues, challenges and opportunities
  12. Industrial communities: inclusive approaches to conservation and interpretation of industrial heritage

Individual abstracts are due 28 February 2014 and can be submitted online.

I love the word ecomuseological, don’t you?

In Memoriam Keith Basso

In a way uniquely his own, Basso was always able to let the material he was studying maintain its own integrity and shine through his penetrating analyses.

The above quote, from the National Museum of the American Indian curator Cécile R. Ganteaume, comes from a deep tribute to Keith Basso, formerly professor at the Universities of New Mexico and Arizona, who passed away August 4 at the age of 73.

Basso was known for his work with the Western Apache, particularly his study of language and place names from local perspectives, which he explored and celebrated through many books and articles. Ganteaume explains the significance of his work:

Basso was extremely well versed in Western Apache history, religion, language, and culture, and put his knowledge at the service of Apache people. He provided expert testimony in numerous state and federal legal proceedings involving tribal members. Among the many works for which Basso is well known are his essays dealing with Western Apache place names. Stemming from his related field research, Basso worked with the White Mountain Apache Tribe to linguistically remap their reservation and to restore for all tribal members Apache place names for special features in the natural landscape. These toponyms not only have deep cultural significance, but, as Basso revealed, moral meaning as well. Honored to be asked to be involved in the remapping project, Basso once explained, “I began to see how superimposing an Anglo language on an Apache landscape was a subtle form of oppression and domination.”

Read the full tribute here.
International Authority Record (VIAF)

Picturing the Gaze of “Heritage”

I’ve recently been exploring the relationship of “heritage” and information technology. There are a lot of possibilities for computers and databases to help maintain, preserve, and document community heritage, but there are so many ways that it can happen. Here’s one example.

Last October, I downloaded a beautiful new iPhone/iPad app: Fotopedia Heritage. It features some rather stunning photographs of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. The app is available as a free download for iOS devices and includes information on UNESCO world heritage sites. The pull for users are the “25,000 amazing pictures” assembled by “thousands of photographers” and “hundreds of curators.” The developer touts the app as a “coffee-table book reinvented,” which suggests that users are encouraged to gaze upon and appreciate static images and authoritative information. The application pulls “official information” from UNESCO’s web portal and links data from Wikipedia about each heritage site. The app’s engaging feature, however, are the sharp, arresting photographs contributed by photographers, which can be rated by users. The app also features an interactive mapping feature to navigate through the sites geographically as well as social tagging and sharing possibilities (including Facebook and Twitter). This sort of application encourages interest and curiosity in “world heritage,” and it purports to draw upon a crowdsourced body of information and expertise. At the same time, it also develops a static user gaze and passive appreciation of heritage without direct engagement at a community or local level.

There are a few more nagging questions about the app. While it is undoubtedly visually appealing, to whom does the commercial side appeal? According to one reviewer on Apple’s App Store, the app is little more than a front for professional photographers to revitalize sales of old photos. If so, I can’t say that I’m entirely opposed, but the question of what revenues the app generates and to whom they flow remains. If the app is, as claimed, officially sponsored by UNESCO, does it generate any funds for the maintenance or preservation of heritage sites? Is the purpose of the app to generate interest? Is it possible to learn about similar sites that are not designated as world heritage, of which there are many?