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Museum Rescues 'Endangered' Recordings

May 3, 2005
Field Museum
In 1958, The Field Museum recorded information about 6,622 artifacts in a new Pacific collection acquired over 60 years. They used a "state-of-the-art" Walkie RecordAll and tapes called sonobands. Today, the Museum is digitizing these recordings. Much as eight-track cassettes have been relegated to the technological dustbin, Walkie RecordAlls and sonobands fell out in the 1970s. Today this technology is as imperiled as an endangered species, such as the pandas on display at the museum.

CHICAGO -- In 1958, Field Museum curator of the Pacific, Roland Force, sat down with Captain A.W.F. Fuller to record more than 100 hours of comprehensive information about the 6,622 artifacts in Fuller's Pacific collection that had been acquired over the previous half century. They used a Walkie RecordAll, then a state-of-the-art recording device, and write-able media tapes called sonobands. Today, the Museum is having these recordings converted to a digital format, which is proving to be quite a challenge.

Much as reel-to-reel tape recorders and eight-track cassettes have been relegated to the technological dustbin, the Walkie RecordAll and the sonoband medium on which the device etched sounds fell out of use in the 1970s. Today this technology is as imperiled as an endangered species, such as the panda or snow leopard. In fact, the full-service archival lab that the Museum contracted to preserve the recordings did not possess a machine of this type.

In the 1950s and 60s, the boxy, battery-powered machines were commonly used in the legal profession and by the Chicago Police Department to make legal recordings in criminal cases. They were also advertised as a way to secretly record conversations.

Fortunately, The Field Museum had kept the two Walkie RecordAll machines used for the Fuller-Force recording sessions. It has loaned these functioning devices to the contractor, the Cutting Corporation in Bethesda, Md., for this project. Otherwise, the voices describing the masks and skulls, weapons and tools, idols and boomerangs, might have been lost.

Fortunately, The Field Museum had kept the two Walkie RecordAll machines used for the Fuller-Force recording sessions. It has loaned these semi-functioning devices to the contractor, The Cutting Corporation, an audio production facility with a renowned sound preservation laboratory in Bethesda, Md., for this project. After studying and restoring the Museum's Walkie RecordAll machines, The Cutting Corporation had to re-engineer its own Walkie RecordAll machine.

The sound preservation engineers at The Cutting Corporation have found that the most challenging part of preserving these recordings digitally is that the sonobands have become brittle over time. As a result, the grooves on the recordings have altered, making tracking difficult but achievable. Thus, through creative engineering, the voices describing the masks and skulls, weapons and tools, idols and boomerangs, will be saved.

"When these workaday recordings were made almost half a century ago, they were seen as little more than verbal notes on what we were getting from Captain Fuller," said John Edward Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum. "Today, however, these recordings add depth and nuance to his fantastic collection. If we didn't digitize them while the sonobands are still playable, these voices from the past would be lost forever."

The remarkable collection of ethnographic and anthropological artifacts was gathered by Fuller who over more than 60 years purchased many of the objects and coaxed others away from fellow collectors. In a sense, Fuller collected collections. Within his collection are objects obtained in the 18th century by famed British explorer Captain James Cook as well as other objects collected for his hometown Chichester Museum by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Another irony is that the objects were not collected with The Field Museum in mind but rather for the British Museum in London. Although Fuller hunted and selected objects that would have complemented that museum's extensive Pacific collection, the hallowed British Museum turned down the opportunity to purchase Fuller's lifework. Instead, the entire collection ended up at The Field Museum. Overnight, the Chicago Museum's Pacific collection became one of the best in the world. To this day, with more than 50,000 objects and 5,500 documentary photographs, it is rivaled only by the British Museum's Pacific collection.

From the beginning, Fuller envisioned his collection as a teaching tool for a scientific comparison of technology and as evidence for the evolution of design. He sought out pieces that were produced before Western influences arrived.

Today, many of objects from Fuller's collection are on permanent display in The Field Museum's Pacific Hall; the rest are preserved in climate-controlled storerooms, or occasionally loaned to scholars around the world for study.

Collection will be basis for study, understanding

Digitizing the recorded descriptions of the collection that were so painstakingly made in 1958 will not just preserve Fuller's voice but also give researchers a new perspective on individual pieces and the significance of the Fuller collection, as a whole. The Museum's Regenstein Endowment supports this work.

Objects come from almost every corner of the Micronesia and Polynesia, including Australia, Hawaii, Easter Islands, Fiji, New Guinea and Tahiti, to name just a few. The collection includes:

  • a large, rare, carved wood idol thought to be the mate to the famous "Bloxam" idol now owned by the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii;
  • a magnificent jade adze from New Zealand estimated to be more than 300 years old, yet in mint condition;
  • a rare, intricately carved wood shield from the Solomon Islands with inlaid pearl shell.

An entry from the recordings shows just one facet of the rich, vivid descriptions being preserved:

"Bushmen's belt obtained at Auki Malaita Island. Mr. Holmes' party went up the river in their launch to obtain fresh water when they were surprised by a party of Bushmen fully armed and apparently on a raiding expedition as they were so close to the coast. The launch beat a retreat down the river, the natives following on the banks, when near the mouth, and in safety, Mr. Holmes went close to the natives in a small boat while being covered by the guns in the launch and obtained this belt from one of them, it being the only thing the man had on."

"We are using 21st century technologies to study and learn from the information and characterizations on these recordings, which are so telling -- just as Fuller would have done," said John Maniatis, Field Museum collections assistant and principal investigator on this project.

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Materials provided by Field Museum. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Cite This Page:

Field Museum. "Museum Rescues 'Endangered' Recordings." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 May 2005. <>.
Field Museum. (2005, May 3). Museum Rescues 'Endangered' Recordings. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 20, 2024 from
Field Museum. "Museum Rescues 'Endangered' Recordings." ScienceDaily. (accessed February 20, 2024).

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