Thursday, 29 March 2012

Listening at Barnet Museum

Barnet Museum is a treasure trove of artefacts detailing local life in Barnet. It was opened in March 1938 at 31 Wood Street to house the collection of the Barnet & District Local History Society, and is situated in a wonderfully creaky old Georgian building. From the moment you enter through it's squeaky front door, you feel you are stepping back in time.

Many of the objects in the collection are domestic, and looking through them is rather like looking at some of the MoDA wallpapers in that they are simultaneously very ordinary, yet also nostalgic and evocative. One senses the presence of past lives and modest dreams in this collection of fashions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; glittering costume jewellery from the middle of the last century; old cooking implements; military wares; food packets; spinning wheels and arcane technologies...

...Best of all from my point of view, Barnet Museum is full of amazing sounds.

Even the silence in Barnet Museum feels old, because of the way that the passing traffic very gently rattles the glass in the window-panes, and because of the quiet yet persistent sound of the ticking Grandfather clock which presides over the first room that you enter.

...the clock has a beautiful chime, captured perfectly here by a contact microphone attached to its outer case.

I was interested in finding something which would help me to embellish a comment one interviewee made about a wallpaper reminding them of maths, and Mike Jordan - the chairman at Barnet Museum - was able to provide me with an amazing, vintage calculator which makes some wonderfully clunky, mathematical sounds. These kinds of calculators were apparently in production between from the 1930s into the 1960s; can you imagine how it must have sounded in buildings where a lot of calculations had to be made? I created two recordings of the vintage calculator; one using a contact microphone and one using a stereo shotgun microphone. It is quite interesting to compare the two; to my ears the contact microphone recording sounds far more mechanistic, whereas the stereo shotgun microphone recording contains more atmosphere and more of a sense of a human being operating the technology. What do you think? Does it sound like maths to you?

Vintage Calculator in the collection at Barnet Museum, photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Barnet Museum

The other thing which I really wanted to record in the Barnet Museum collection, is the specific sound of pearls gliding one over the other inside a jewellery box, as the idea of an older lady sorting through her costume jewellery was one of the fantasies inspired by looking at MoDA's wallpaper collection during the interview stage of this project.

Costume Jewellery in the collection at Barnet Museum, photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Barnet Museum

Again, I tried recording the specific texture of pearls and costume jewellery using a contact microphone and a shotgun stereo microphone, because I think that both of these approaches yield different results re: the sonic qualities of pearls.

Many thanks to all at the Barnet Museum for helping me to assemble this creaky, shiny, squeaky old collection of recordings, and for showing me the wonderful treasure trove of local history in your Museum.


  1. The sound of the calculator very much reminded me of one we had when I worked in the Unemployment Benefit Office in Stepney, though ours was not quite as old as the one you have pictured. There was only one woman in the office who knew how to use it and she used to click away in a demonic fashion. (I bet Blythe House used to sound loud when they added up all the Post Office Savings, and now it is so very quiet!)

    Real pearls make a very satisfying sound when rubbed across your teeth to test for authenticity, though I suspect that can only be heard by the person doing the action.

    The clock reminded me that it is time for bed.

  2. You have captured the sound of the grandfather clock perfectly. It sounds as if I am back in the Barnet Museum.