restricted access TWO Collecting Silence: The Sonic Specimen
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TWO Collecting Silence The Sonic Specimen On the reverse side of this book’s title page, below the publisher’s name and thematic information, there is a string of letters and numbers. This code tells you how the book is catalogued in the Library of Congress. The world’s largest library, the Library of Congress seeks to acquire and preserve a universal collection of human knowledge.1 Since its inception in 1800, the library has acquired nearly forty million books, each organized according to topic. This book, for example, will be coded ML3900 if it is deemed to be about the social politics of music; HV4700 if it is a book about animal rights; and BD140 if it is a philosophical book about the origins of knowledge.2 But imagine that instead of sending the book to the Library of Congress, we wanted to store it in a natural history museum, sending it across the Mall from the Library of Congress to the National Museum of Natural History. There the book would become a natural history specimen, an object representative of natural knowledge. Instead of being organized by topic, it would be organized by its evolutionary relationships. As a biological object, the book is a derivative form of plant matter and would best be sent to the museum’s Department of Botany. Its origin in North America suggests that it is probably made primarily of white pine pulp, Pinus glauca. The museum’s larger specimens, which include things like pinecones, are stored in cabinets with pull-out drawers. We might, somewhat hesitantly, suggest that the curator place this book in such a drawer, somewhere between a branch of hemlock and a loblolly pinecone. We could then rather shamefacedly affix to it the label “Pinus glauca pulpus.” The imagined identification of a book in the botanical collection is not so different from the way specimens were represented when the National Museum of 42 Animal Musicalities Natural History opened in 1910. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wealthy cities and individuals in the United States invested thousands of dollars to build lavish natural history museums decorated with crenelated turrets , columned facades, and delicate arcades in Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York. Similar temples rose up in London, Vienna, and Paris, filling their halls with tens of thousands of specimens obtained on expeditions to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In these places were assembled large collections that gathered together diverse objects: insects, plants, birds, shells, and fossils were joined in museum storerooms by anthropological collections that included tribal artifacts and the detritus of violated tombs. These collections were the basis of a science of identification. Specimens became a way to know who fit and who didn’t, a map of nature that extended from animal skins to anthropological artifacts. The music of humans and other animals had a place in these collections, with song collectors sending musical instruments, notated songs, and sound recordings to museums and other institutions of knowledge, where they became specimens within a sonic typology. Once institutionalized, songs became part of a broader natural typology, where they had to fit within the systematic habits of the library and the museum. Though new to most museums, musical recordings and instruments were welcomed into institutions. The majority of these musical artifacts were human songs, arranged to display racial and cultural development. Music historian Jann Pasler has shown, for example, how the Paris Conservatoire ’s musical instrument collection was organized to meet colonial narratives of racial development, while in New York, the musical instrument collections at the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were similarly crafted to reflect ideas about the relations between culture and natural history.3 Occasionally the songs of animals, especially birds, were also arranged in collections; one archaeologist even suggested in 1914 that a museum of sound be built in the place of a traditional natural history museum, writing, “Bird songs are probably of as much interest to museum visitors as bird skins.”4 In this chapter, I examine the inclusion of songs within institutional collections of natural knowledge. For the first half of the twentieth century, the evolutionary theories of development discussed in chapter 1 enabled broad comparisons between species and cultures. In the midst of these comparisons, the specimen took on a central role in the determination of biological identity. As naturalists and biologists developed new models for identifying species based on the visual inspection of specimens, experts in music...


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