Preserving and Listening to Soundscapes

Closeup of a sound board

The BBC recently ran a podcast series called Forest 404. The podcast is set in a futuristic 24th Century, in a time after a massive data crash and in a era in which forests and much of the natural world no longer exist.

I initially started listening to Forest 404 because the protagonist is voiced by Pearl Mackie, who I loved in Doctor Who. The entire podcast is framed around archived soundscapes from the 21st century (know affectionately as the ‘Old World’ in the podcast).

The main character Pan is essentially a digital archivist who makes decisions about what sounds are worth keeping and which sounds get destroyed from the archive and the world’s memory.

The fact that this entire podcast intersects with climate, archiving, and science fiction make it worth listening to. For me, this podcast also made me think about broader archival efforts to document sounds and soundscapes.

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Learning from the Doctor

 The BBC series Doctor Who combines fantasy, science fiction, and history; all of which happen to be some of my favourite things.  I’m actually kind of surprised that it has taken me so long to address the show on this blog and to look at it from a public history perspective.

Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational program for children. The idea was that the episodes set in the past were to teach kids about history, while the space episodes would provide bite-sized facts about science. This concept was reinforced by the Doctor’s first two companions being a history teacher and  a science teacher.

Today’s version of Doctor Who has an increasing fantasy and includes content that would be downright frightening to children– weeping angles anyone?  However, I still think that the program does contain some historical content that is of educational value.  The BBC has actually created some lesson plans based on Doctor Who episodes. These lesson plans typically focus on episodes where Doctor Who visits the past (eg. Victorian England, England during WWII, the era of Vincent Van Gogh, etc).  The historic setting is then used to spark conversations about the past.

A large number of Doctor Who episodes fall into the category of ‘alternate history.’  They contain a bit of historical context, but the details — eg. Winston Churchill is using Daleks to fight the Germans during the WWII blitz — aren’t completely accurate.   In this particular instance the setting of WWII and the actual portrayal of Winston Churchill are fairly accurate.  Most episodes where the Doctor visits the past are like this, they contain grains of truth amongst the fantasy.  Doctor Who provides an introduction to a historical era which may inspire viewers to dig into the past to learn about what actually happened. 

The Doctor Who of today is a far cry from children’s educational television.  However, there are gems of historical knowledge and context amongst the aliens, TARDIS, and sonic-screwdrivers.  And besides, who doesn’t want a TARDIS that would let them travel through time and space?

New Year Heritage Links

Lots of heritage and public history on goings this week.  Some of the stories that caught my attention:

  • In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg recently broadcasted five episodes dedicated to the development of written word and how the word has shaped our intellectual history.  The podcasts are well worth a listen and include detailed descriptions of a number of artifacts held by the British Library. 
  • The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the Citizen Archivist Dashboard project.  This digital initiative aims to use crowdsourcing to transcribe, tag, edit, and upload photographs to the NARA collection.  The crowdsouring exercises are framed as challenges as means of encouraging user participation, and are overall visually appealing and simple to follow. 
  • The year’s first #builtheritage twitter chat took place on Wednesday January 4th.  The transcript will be available online in the near future. 
  • The Thinking About Exhibits blog featured a great post on applications that focus on museum objects.