Inside the Collection

Nightingales, Sirens, Ventriloquists and Gramophones: This is a Voice

Advertising sign for EMI/HMV 1960
Advertising sign for EMI/HMV, about 1960. HMV stands for His Masters Voice. It shows Nipper, the dog, attentively listening to a cylinder phonograph playing the phantom voice of his former owner. Gift of David Sheedy, 1991, MAAS Collection 91/1892-4/6. Photo: Felix Warmuth, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Plutarch (b. 46 CE) tells the story of a man who plucks the feathers from a Nightingale and on finding nothing more than a scrawny body not worth eating, exclaims ‘You are a voice and nothing more.’

The power and potency of the voice, in this case, the human voice, is the focus of the exhibition This is a Voice which opened at the Powerhouse Museum on August 10. Elusive and immaterial, the physicality and texture of the voice is examined in close detail along with many complex physiological and psychological processes that shape and make the voice. Bringing together a wide range of medical artefacts, historical research, technological developments, contemporary artists and vocalists, the incredible capacity of the voice is explored as an important instrument. Audiences are invited to consider the voice as a profoundly human experience.

Amalgamated Wireless Australasia marble microphone
Amalgamated Wireless Australasia marble microphone, about 1930. This microphone was used at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, broadcasting to the live audience and across every radio station in the country. Gift of Telstra Corporation Limited 2007, MAAS Collection K244. Photo: Felix Warmuth, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

This is a Voice presents fascinating material from many fields of knowledge and provides a truly interdisciplinary way of curating exhibitions. Investigating the importance of art–science intersections in contemporary research provides new possibilities for exhibition-making and audience experiences. The dissolution of strict boundaries around fields of enquiry can lead to new ways of knowledge creation, especially in the context of public experiences such as exhibitions. MAAS is at the forefront of research into this evolving field.

The presentation of This is a Voice in Sydney developed through our collaboration with the Wellcome Collection, London. The exhibition profiles objects from the MAAS collection and is enhanced by extensive loans from the Wellcome and other public and private lenders, several commissions and partnerships with academic research centres.

Nef (ship-shaped table centrepiece) from the Workshop of Karl Bender
Nef (ship-shaped table centrepiece) from the Workshop of Karl Bender, enamelled silver with coloured glass settings. Bequest of CR Thornett, 1972. MAAS Collection A6070. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The breadth of the MAAS collection across applied arts and sciences is on display throughout the exhibition. Early on visitors encounter the highly ornate 19th century Nef French table piece. The Nef is placed here to symbolise mythologies of the alluring and destructive nature of the voice in the form of sirens and mermaids, which are common across many sea-faring cultures. Included in the section ‘The Voice is the Original Instrument’ which examines the theory that the human voice evolved for singing and social bonding is a didgeridoo made by Gerard Yirawala. The didgeridoo is an instrument originally used by the Indigenous people of Arnhem Land for many thousands of years. Historically played in the context of ceremonial life, these instruments rely on voice and breath to connect the past, present and future and are integral to spiritual, cultural and social practices. Song is one of the main ways Aboriginal Australians express, share and preserve their identity and culture.

Head, neck, throat and skin anatomy chart,1945-63.
Head, neck, throat and skin anatomy chart, about 1945-63. Canvas, wood, cotton metal from the Denoyer-Geppert Company. The chart shows the parts of the anatomy which contribute to vocal production. MAAS Collection 2017/18/1-13. Photo: Felix Warmuth, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Material from the MAAS Health and Medicine collection makes an important contribution to understanding the complex physical mechanisms required to create vocal sounds. For example, the 19th century papier mâché Larynx model was used to teach human anatomy at the Sydney Technical College. The model can be opened to reveal the vocal folds, which are responsible for sound production and for manipulating the pitch and volume of the voice. While the electronic larynx from about 1975 is an example of early technologies that made speech possible for people who had lost their larynx.

Ventriloquism refers to the voice produced from one person and then ‘thrown’ to appear to come from another source. These uncanny objects create diverse reactions in people from pure entertainment to feelings of real discomfort. The ventriloquist dummy head captures this sense of disquiet perfectly.

Installation view Utterance by Lawrence English
Installation view Utterance by Lawrence English. Multi-channel sound work including 16 gramophone horns from the MAAS collection. Photo: Felix Warmuth, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Human endeavour and advances in recording and capturing voices through technology and machinery is explored in a beautifully inventive work by media artist Lawrence English. MAAS commissioned Lawrence to make a work incorporating objects from our collection and was encouraged to think about how we could make these objects ‘come alive’. Lawrence developed two works, A People’s Choir and Utterance. In 1877 Thomas Edison created the phonograph, which relied on horns as did the next generation gramophones, to amplify voices and sounds that were recorded and reproducible for the first time. This invention opened up the way voice could exist beyond its initial moment of utterance. The sound work by Lawrence incorporates 16 historical gramophone horns from the MAAS collection. Embedded into the wall and employing modern digital recording technology operating in the background the horns once again amplify sound to the delight of visitors, providing a wonderful sense of how these devices sounded. The horns ‘utter’ a range of topical words from 2017 in languages from Mandarin, Arabic, Korean, English and many more. His work asks us to consider what it means when voices are not listened to or are not permitted to speak, especially in complex political times such as those we currently face.

This is a Voice encompasses a wide range of materials and experiences across the arts and sciences, capturing the potency of the human voice by revealing its deep connection to every aspect of life and identity.

Written by Katie Dyer.

One response to “Nightingales, Sirens, Ventriloquists and Gramophones: This is a Voice

  • Hello, the pic of assorted wall mounted gramophone horns shows a dual mouth folded horn in the bottom right. Can you tell me who made it and any other information you may have please? Many thanks, Keith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *