audio-archaeology – the deed and prosper


If people know one thing about archeology, it’s probably the fact that historic artifacts are buried layer-upon-layer underground. In any one spot, the deeper you dig, the further back in time you go: material history is neat and orderly like that. In an urban area as long and densely inhabited as London, and particularly the City of London where the Romans first bridged the Thames in the 1st century AD, every high-value plot of land conceals potential treasures from centuries of city-dwellers. Many of the objects that have been uncovered so far have ended up on display in the Museum of London, visual prompts for a historical narrative.

But what of a history of sound? Could we begin to estimate how many conversations each square metre of terrain has witnessed? How can we reimagine a history that is made not of physical objects, but of intangible, audible fragments, from both our ancient ancestors and more recent relatives?

Modern museums often make use of audio technologies to bring exhibits to life with ‘authentic sounds’ piped into the galleries through concealed speakers. The Museum of London is no exception, and its Victorian Walk – with the realistic bank, shop and public house – is enlivened with voices and noises to transport the visitor back in time to the hubbub of street life in the late-nineteenth century. Yet in the real world, many of those places – pubs especially – weren’t frozen in time in the 1880s. They have been in continual use ever since, with every generation of landlords and punters subtly altering them inside and out. Which begs the question: should a pub in a museum be presented as it was when it first opened or is it possible to represent a more complex, layered history that mixes the distant and more recent past?

The Deed and Prosper is an installation by Nick Luscombe & Steve Hellier that premiered in early November 2016 as part of the ‘Museum of Lost Sounds’ and a wider late night of performance and audio interventions throughout the Museum of London. Visitors to The Deed and Prosper were invited to take a seat in this small but perfectly-formed ‘museum pub’, which is complete with chairs and tables for half-a-dozen drinkers and a bar adorned with tantalizing (but alas not functioning) beer taps. Whereas the usual immersive museum exhibit might try to camouflage the technology through which soundtrack of background noise is played, for this installation the bar and walls proudly displayed eight black speakers, each emitting a different channel of sound, demonstrating a deliberate juxtaposition of historical periods.

Alongside the aural element of the work is a powerful visual component. A flat screen monitor sits atop the bar, contrasting with the dark wooden surroundings, as does many a television in all those pubs that entice customers to linger with unceasing sports coverage. However, ‘Deed and Prospect TV’ (DPTV) isn’t showing live football or rugby, but a different brand of hero: a rolling display of photographs of beautiful glazed tile plaques from G.F.Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, located in nearby Postman’s Park.

This public monument commemorates ordinary people across the UK who died saving the lives of others and who might otherwise have been forgotten – from the fireman who saved six others in a fire on Gray’s Inn Road before being scorched to death, to the railway clerk in Lea who drowned ‘trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed’. The epitaphs go into the kind of detail about the deadly incidents that you might expect to hear from a seasoned raconteur who takes pleasure in revealing the horrors to an aghast audience of fellow drinkers – the eight-year-old Henry James Bristow who ‘saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock’. These grizzly yet gripping tales of heroism are entirely in keeping with the context of a pub – the natural home of tall tales.

The audio component of the work also draws on ‘found material’ in the form of extracts from the oral history archives of the Museum, as well as recordings made by Hellier of his ninety-one year old great aunt Winifred. The recordings are united by the theme of London Docklands – now all gleaming towers, bank headquarters and white-collar office-workers, but previously home to thousands of dockworkers in the industry’s heyday, until its rapid dismantling from the late 1960s to early ’80s. Winifred speaks of the lively industry she witnessed as a child while running errands for her dock-worker father, whereas other voices are clearly older recordings, made soon after the docks were closed, but before redevelopment had begun. The former dock-workers seem resigned to the loss of their livelihoods, unemotionally describing the daily activity that once took place in the now empty waters – yet they can’t help but ponder the big question as to why no public body stepped in to save the industry. From the position of the 21st century and knowing the consequences of the forced decline of such industries on subsequent generations, these questions have new resonance and prescience. If only they’d been listened to back then.

The sonic character of the era is reinforced by the addition of library music from the ’80s, deconstructed and manipulated to create sober backing-track of drums and synthesizers. These are blended of more abstract sounds drawn from the original, pre-digitized recordings – sync pulses and rewind sounds from cassette recorders and reel-to-reel tapes. This element adds another aspect of the history being told – that of sound recording technologies, which have so swiftly shifted from analogue to digital over the past couple of decades, consigning once high-tech equipment to museum collections.

The overall result creates an effect much like the chatter of drinkers in a pub and yet it also represents something of the multiple and overlapping layers that might be revealed if audio-archaeologists could dig through the sounds of any one place, the way their conventional peers dig sections of earth. In The Deed and Prosper, Luscombe and Hellier have demonstrated a sophisticated way of presenting history: one in which audio and visual elements from different eras co-exist in tension, bouncing meaning off each other, and this is more akin to the way that a city like London really evolves – not in neat historical layers, but in a state of constant push-and-pull between current, recent and distant times.


Rebecca Morrill