BatChat

A new exhibition of wildlife sound at the British Library

April 26, 2023 Season 4 Episode 45
BatChat
A new exhibition of wildlife sound at the British Library
Show Notes Transcript

S4E45 - Bonus! This summer, in a major new exhibition, you can see how documenting the animal world has resulted in some of humankind’s most awe-inspiring art, science and sound recordings:
Animals: Art, Science and Sound is now open at the British Library
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to darkness and Steve got to have a preview of what's on show a couple of days before the exhibition opened. In this interview with Cheryl Tipp, curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds, Steve discovers what can be heard in the exhibit as well as what bat recordings lie in the archive. Hear the recordings of horseshoe bats made on one of the first commercially available bat detectors; the Holgate Mk VI and you can see this detector within the exhibition along with photographs of the waveforms it could make from recordings. It sits alongside other important works such as Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms in nature) with the plate of bats on display. Cheryl also explains how you can submit your bat recordings to the library for adding to the archive.

The exhibition is open until Monday 28th Aug 2023. Tickets and all the information you need can be found on the Animals: Art, Science and Sound website.

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Steve Roe:

Hello, welcome to BatChat! We're the Bat Conservation Trust, the leading charity in the United Kingdom solely devoted to the conservation of bats and the landscapes on which they rely. This podcast is for anyone who loves bats. We're taking you on location across the UK to bring you the work being done in the world of Bat Conservation straight to your headphones. I'm Steve Roe; professionally, I'm an ecologist and in my spare time, I'm a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. You can join the conversation online using the hashtag #BatChat that's all one word. We're currently between series here on BatChat, but I had to tell you about a really special exhibition taking place over the next few months. So we're bringing you this special bonus episode. Last week, I was invited to a place I've never been before, the British Library. Located opposite St Pancras International train station in central London, the British Library is largely known for holding the world's most important documents such as the Magna Carta, and Leonardo da Vinci's notebook. But did you know it also holds the wildlife sound archives? Established in 1969 as the British Library of wildlife sounds, the collection now holds over a quarter of a million scientifically organised and documented field recordings covering all classes of animal. Now this summer in a major new exhibition, titled Animals; Art, Science and Sound, you can see how documenting the animal world has resulted in some of humankind's most awe inspiring art, science and sound recordings. An entire section of this collection is dedicated to darkness. And I got to have a preview of what's on show a couple of days before the exhibition opened. In this interview with Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife and environmental sounds, I discover what can be heard in the exhibit, as well as what bat recordings lie in the archive, we get to hear horseshoe bats made on one of the first commercially available bat detectors, the Holgate Mk VI. And you can see this detector within the exhibition, along with photographs of the waveforms it could make from recordings, it sits alongside other important that works. And in this episode, Cheryl also explains how you can submit your bat recordings to the British Library for adding to the archives. So I am, as you can hear in the background, in a new exhibition at the British Library in central London, just over the road from St. Pancras station, and I'm here with Cheryl Tipp, who's the curator of wildlife and environmental sounds at the British Library. So Cheryl, do you want to say a bit about your role here and how long you've been here at the library.

Cheryl Tipp:

So I'm curator of wildlife and environmental sounds working in the sound archive, I've been here for 18 years now, my background is in zoology, but also in public libraries. And so it's a perfect combination when I was able to come and work here at the BL.

Steve Roe:

Lovely. And I mean, I've always thought the British Library just holds manuscripts and documents and the important books and things and hadn't realised it's got a sound library, how vast is the collection? And what sort of things does it hold?

Cheryl Tipp:

Well, the sound archive holds over 7 million recordings. And it covers all genres of recorded sound. So I look after the wildlife and environmental but of course, we've got pop music curators, drama, literature, world and traditional accents and dialects radio or history, we've got so much material. And in my collection, I've got about 300,000 recordings, catalogued recordings, many more to do in my collection(!), covering all the animal groups and from all around the world. And that's one of the points of the exhibition was to try and promote the sound collections here as much as the other collections because many people don't know we have a sound archive, and it's this massive resource that's just waiting to be explored and used. And, yeah, it's a great resource.

Steve Roe:

And why a career in sound, you know, what is it about sound that's made you want to do this?

Cheryl Tipp:

Well, my background is not in sound, I started with just population biology. And then by chance, I managed to get a job in the sound archive, and it completely changed. My kind of interests, my focus, you know, so I really kind of relearn the natural world through sound. And so when I first started, it was great learning all these new sounds and exploring them and hearing weird sounds and, you know, really important recordings. And so now I listen in a completely different way as well when I'm out and about, you know, so it's kind of going back to old places that I used to know visually, but then now exploring them sonically. So it's complete, it's actually completely changed my life and how I engage with the natural world.

Steve Roe:

So I mean, how does sound tell us more about the natural world I'm thinking about the larks ascending project. So both Cheryl and I are members of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society and their latest newsletter's requesting that people record the ... one of the weekends is just gone. There's another two weekends ... the first time that people hear skylarks, how does sound link us with the natural world?

Cheryl Tipp:

Well, it's such a powerful thing sound you know, we're so used to reading about animals and looking at animals but what you can learn from what you can get from sound you know, from a kind of wellbeing point of view, just enjoy and being able to enjoy the sound of the natural world but also from a scientific point of view from from sort of population studies and surveys, using sound to identify new species where before they species were kind of defined just by looking, you know, the morphology and and using sound that kind of is another way of looking at animals. And it's identified new species, it's found new populations, it's inspired people. It creates this, it stirs a lot of emotion in people as well, sometimes more. So I would say, than just looking at a static object or reading a description, because there's another living living being you know, that that is living at the same time as you and it's, it's something very special about sound, I know, I'm biassed, it's, it's yeah, it's a very special medium.

Steve Roe:

Well, and there's a reason that people listen to this podcast, because you know, we take people out on location, we get those sounds of people doing stuff.

Cheryl Tipp:

Exactly. This is what we found during lockdown as well is that the the wildlife sounds section was hugely popular because people couldn't travel anymore, you know, and maybe they wanted to listen to the sounds of rainforest and South America. And you could through our collections, you know, so it really helps transport you to someone different, or someone new. Yes, wonderful.

Steve Roe:

So we can hear lots of sounds in the background. And we've got you on BatChat to talk about your exciting new exhibition, which is called Animals; Art, Science and Sound. So do you want to tell us what it's all about?

Cheryl Tipp:

Yep, so our exhibition is looking at how animals have been documented over the past 2000 years in terms of our collection items. Anyway, that's our focus, and how they've been documented through texts through visual material like paintings, and through sound recordings as well. And what we've done is we've brought together a range of material from across the library, it's very library focused, you know, we wanted to really showcase our recall our material that we have here, and the material is divided into four different zones, so darkness, water, land and air. By doing that, it's allowed us to bring together chronologically and geographically diverse material to tell little stories that run through the exhibition. So we're standing in our Batcave here. And we have a section that looks at that we have a section that looks at strange animals that live in darkness, we have a section that looks at the deep sea, and that those kind of ways of grouping material together runs through the exhibition. So just hope people find a lot of inspiration and enjoyment through looking through this material.

Steve Roe:

So Cheryl says we're still in the BatCave. So we're, it's actually the first bit on the exhibition, that people come to, if you do come down and say, and we're stood in a darkened area of the exhibition with lots of glass cabinets, and there's loads of different books and documents with illustrations of bats through different times. There's an old bat detector here, which we'll come on to in a minute, and there's illustrations and paintings of bats on the wall. You've picked these particular ones for the exhibition, what are the sounds for that you have in the library.

Cheryl Tipp:

So this section on bats is looking at how our knowledge of bats has changed over time. So from classical times, and early scholars thinking that they were a weird kind of bird moving through to be able to identify them as a distinct group of mammals in the room, right. So the bat detector we're looking at here is a Holgate Mk VI, and it belonged to the amateur naturalist John Hooper, who your listeners might know, we have his collection here in the library. And this bat detector was used by Hooper to record some of the earliest recordings of British bats. And next to it, we have a photo album of his which when I saw it, when it's closed, it just says 'Photos' and I thought 'Ah that'll be nice', you know, he's got some of his family, maybe him and then flicking through it. It's all of these photographs of waveforms that he took by photographing his oscilloscope. And he has all the different species that he's recorded so greater horseshoe bats... [Audio of Hooper's recording of a greater horseshoe bat plays] We have another page for pipistrelles. And it's just a really lovely thing to accompany the sound recordings on the equipment that we have here in the library. And it's it's so interesting to see, you know, we have this early bat detector. And it's so it's supposed to be portable. It's so heavy and quite cumbersome. And yet, you know, he managed to sort of put it on the back of his bicycle and travel around London and around into Devon and also in places like that to make these recordings. And it's in that great tradition of the amateur naturalist, you know, because it wasn't he wasn't a scientist as his paid job. But just doing this in his spare time and what he was able to contribute in terms of, you know, testing out equipment, working with specifications, building up a collection is a great thing. So this is part of the sound archive and sits alongside our other recordings of bats that we have and other animals as well. All, but it's a very, it's a very special one for us, I think because it's so multi dimensional.

Steve Roe:

As Cheryl says he would take it on his bike, and it would fill a basket on the front of a bicycle. It's that big. And these oscillograms are very different to what we're used to now that are very different don't they?

Cheryl Tipp:

They do, yeah, so we used to sort of, you know, spectrograms, and coloured spectrograms. And it's quite easy to follow the shapes, whereas these are, these are very different. And, to be honest, I still don't fully understand them. I get the point. But um, yeah, they're very different to what we would normally normally do. And it's quite nice to have it sitting next to this, this pretty quite familiar plate to people from Ernst Haeckel from the 1914, this particular edition [of Kunstformen der Natur, (Art Forms of Nature)], showing different species of echolocating bat. So you see the different nose leaves, you know, the facial structures. And so I love this one, because you've got so many different species, and sometimes you have a side view as well as a full on front view. And then having it next to a greater horseshoe bat painting by Edward Lear. It's got a cheekily putting his wing out saying hello. So it's yeah, it's really it's been really fun putting this material together, I could have done a whole section on bats, you know, I had to rein it in a little bit.

Steve Roe:

And how many recordings of bats do you think you have in the collection? Do you have any sort of idea?

Cheryl Tipp:

I do. We have about, Well, we have over 1000 recordings of bats that are catalogued, we have many more that are waiting to be processed. The earliest recordings are from 1963 that we have made in Trinidad by David Pye. And then the earliest British ones we have from 1964 onwards made by John Hooper. And then we have recordings running through until last year, and I'll be getting some this year as well. So it's, you know, it's constantly growing, constantly busy cataloging. And it's quite nice to see the different recorders that are being used as well, you know, from an early heterodyne, through to the more modern recorders that we have been listening to a nocturnal say, recorded on the heterodyne. And then listen to it recorded on other machines on other devices and seeing the difference, you know, so how it's all kind of just different interpretations of sounds that we can hear it. It's very interesting to do the comparison.

Steve Roe:

And in terms of the exhibition, I mean, we've talked about bats here, but like I said, further round, there's, there's water, land and air, and there's stuff, the land section is quite large. And as we were going around chair or just casually dropping in that there's framed images of letters from Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace, and there's a Leonardo image on those and you just dropping those in? I mean, how difficult has it been to pull together those sort of manuscripts and link them together with the sound elements of this exhibition, it's been

Cheryl Tipp:

know, the text and the visuals and the sounds. So the hardest bit has been trying to decide what ones to focus in on you know, so we could have 10 different exhibitions on this subject, each one would be slightly different. But that's what's been fun about it, as well as the kind of mini curated sections as we go through, you know, putting them together so that we can tell the story we want to tell, like for bats, or for strange animals that live in darkness, or for trying to save humpback whales from extinction, you know, these different stories we're trying to tell. So it's been a lot of fun. For sure.

Steve Roe:

One of my favourite parts was as we were going around, there were large, dutiful colour photographs of of beetles and then what hadn't seen before was those are they focused activities, those to get the 3d depth, I

Cheryl Tipp:

guess, believe so. Yeah, that's sort of like stitched all together.

Steve Roe:

And then underneath each of those was the actual specimen that they're photographed. It was really nice. We also linked those two bits together. What's your favourite sound in the exhibit?

Cheryl Tipp:

It's so difficult because I like walking around today. The first time I've heard there's a red fox playing in the space and I love the sound of red foxes. So that's kind of a favourite of mine. But when there's so there's so many it's so hard to choose. We've got gorilla chest beats you know, we've got beautiful bird songs. We've got our two what is my favourite actually at the moment is the section to do with underwater sounds. Yeah, so we've got bearded seals those really strange sounds that they make as they descend, we've got a walrus in there. That's making drum sounds we have an air sack in it's throat we've got the mating calls of the haddock, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whale song as well as so you know, beautiful. So yeah, I think my favourite changes every day.

Steve Roe:

And where's the idea for this exhibition come from? You know, like you said, it's taken ages to put it together. You know, Where's where's the idea and the need for it, I guess come from

Cheryl Tipp:

was the library's 50th anniversary this year. And we were thinking about this for a few years, we wanted to showcase our natural history material. Also look at our scientific material as well. We thought one really nice way to engage with the scientific material is to use natural history on animals, you know, because everyone loves one group of animals or another. And we just felt this was the right time to try and do something a little bit different. To bring together such a wide variety of material, you know, so and this would hopefully appeal to Anybody as well, any age, and so it's not you don't have to have a particular background or you don't have to have a particular knowledge, you can just come in here, and and just you know, bask in wonderful things that are on display.

Steve Roe:

Yeah, I mean, in terms of different ages, there's a section around the corner where you've got different the first I guess, records on vinyl. And one of those is a is a kid's one that with vinyls made for kids.

Cheryl Tipp:

Yeah, that's right. This one dates from 1919. It was produced by the talking about corporation in the US and they did a series of educational records for children, which would have a story on the back about the animal, I'm sorry, it is I should explain. It's like imagine a little tea plate. And then that tea plate, which is the record, and that is fixed to a wider carbon picture of an animal. And you've put the whole thing on the turntable on the one we have on displays the hippopotamus or the cardboard goes on it. Yeah, everything goes on. So it all goes round, which is really fun. And then the the hippopotamus when it's a little rhyme talking about a hippopotamus, and in on that recording, there's a sound of of a hippo, supposedly, but it's actually Foley. So it's artificially created sounds because 99 Team wildlife sound recording was still very early, medium. And they didn't have loads of recordings that we do today. And so they had to recreate artificially create the sound of a hippo. And that's they use an instrument called a lion's roar, which is like a drum with a piece of code, and you pull that through to create a kind of roar. They also use it on their other records. So for a lion, an elephant, or something, or tiger as well. But when I first heard it, I thought it was a completely new record. And that I'd never heard of it, though. Who made this? Where is it? I need it. But it's not actually everyone, I'm gonna write a paper on it. But I'm glad I didn't embarrass myself.

Steve Roe:

So when this goes out the exhibition will have already opened. When does it from from and how do people book?

Cheryl Tipp:

So it runs from the 21st of April to the 28th of August, you can book on our website, www.bl.uk Just go to events and animals, we're going to have a few days as well throughout the run, where it's kind of a pay as you go. So just to you know, encourage more people to come. There's a series of events as well, that's running through the exhibition, some of which are online. So you know, anywhere in the world, you can you can tune into that. Lots of things, lots of things going on. Hopefully most people come and see it in real life. But if not, there's a lot of things online as well.

Steve Roe:

Now, I was really pleasantly pleasantly surprised, you know, walking around, it's a real immersive experience. It's not just the exhibits, there's actually lights and sound and moving elements to the exhibit as well. Yeah,

Cheryl Tipp:

that's what we've tried to do is trying to make it as immersive as possible without being too overwhelming, you know, so like the lighting in the cave and the dripping water and the animation on the ceiling, just trying to just trying to bring it all together. Because of the quiet space for me is you know, I don't enjoy a quiet space personally, which is why first fill it with some sounds.

Steve Roe:

So you mentioned you've got 1000 Bat recordings in the library? Are you looking for more recordings? And if so, what's the best way for people to get stuff to you and what song what sort of information needs to go with those.

Cheryl Tipp:

I'm always looking for new material, you can never have too many recordings and an archive such as mine, you know, and I definitely have gaps, both British species and other species from all over the world. So I'm more than happy. If anyone has recordings of bats, please yes, please send them through to me, that'd be amazing. Just contact wildlifesound@bl.uk That will come straight through to me, or you can find me on Twitter as well through the usual usual ways. And in terms of extra information, it's always great to have sort of the metadata for the species name where you recorded when you recorded what equipment you used any sort of processing behaviour, time of day, you know, the more information the better really, because if you only have the sounds, it's kind of as nice as it is it's, it has less value in terms of how it can be reused, and what it can contribute to science or you know, for any reason. So we definitely like to have as much information as possible. Yeah, to build our catalogue records, and to make it more useful for future generations.

Steve Roe:

When I'm very guilty of that I'm getting better. But I've started now getting into the habit of just saying where I am and what it is at the start or the end of the recording. You're sometimes gifted entire collections of sound and you have to make sense of it. You know, guess that meta data at the start or end is the number one thing to do really.

Cheryl Tipp:

It is so you know, we do get a lot of new or not new, but we do get new collections coming into the library. And obviously the person that made the collection, you are the sort of understood the organisation but then we get it cold. We're like, okay, so I'll sit on the floor in my office and just try and like get out all the tapes and like try and make sense of it in terms of date, or location. And then you sort of have a look to see if there's any metadata whether it's in a folder or whether it's written on the tape box. Sometimes, sometimes there's none, or like bare minimum. So then that's when when you catalogue it, you'd have to listen to it too. To try and work out what you're listening to, you know, so that's why you sort of need that specialist knowledge so that you can, if it's birds, for example, you know, if it's a song or a call, or sometimes birds can sound like frogs or you know, so you do need that background to be able to do it. And that's part of the fun as well as taking this collection, that might be absolute chaos. And then making sense of it, digitising it, and cataloguing it, and then you know, that people can then come and listen to it and reuse it. So as you get a great sense of achievement, you know, through doing that,

Steve Roe:

you mentioned people reusing the sound. And that was the next question. And apart from, you know, wonderful exhibitions like this, what are the sounds in the library actually used for?

Cheryl Tipp:

In my section, the sounds are used for scientific research. So it might be taxonomic studies, it might be played back in the field trying to, you know, do surveys or find new populations. And that's kind of the start of the section where it was very much a scientific collection back in 1969. But the use has broadened out so much now. So you've got artists use the sounds a lot, musicians use the sounds a lot. Museum, museums and galleries use the sounds, either to tell a story or just for ambience, you know, teachers, video game makers, radio, I mean, it's like, endless who can use it, and some people just use it just for personal enjoyment and relaxation, as well. So it has so many avenues where the sounds can go. And it's nice to see that kind of evolution of a sound recording. So maybe it came in as a very high science recording. And then maybe it's been used by kids in the school project, you know, or more creatively. So it's nice to think that when the recordings come in, in one way, they can then go out in another way and have a new life later on down the line.

Steve Roe:

And has anybody done any studies on how sounds we've sort of evolved from the same species? Have people found that, you know, from years and years ago, the same animals now sound different? Is that Is that something that's been found?

Cheryl Tipp:

They do look at things like that, yes, they look at what say, for example, once, so you might have had a species 40 years ago. And then by looking at the sound by looking at the morphology by looking at the DNA, they realise that it's completely new species. So the sounds have been used to split species. But because I also have environmental sounds, as well as quite interesting to see how the sounds can change over time in a particular space. So a place that could be really, really noisy, for example, you might find turtledoves, in a place on nightingales in the place, and then someone will go there and record in 40 years time, you know, and that's no longer the case, you know? So it's a good way of seeing how the soundscapes change over time, mainly because of human activity. Yeah, so so you can see that in recordings as well as changes over time and accents as well on how voices change over time. You see that a lot of cetaceans, yeah, you know how it changes every year. So that's very interesting as well.

Steve Roe:

And real poignant moment for me was when Cheryl pointed out, I can't remember the species. But there's a description of a sound of a creature that's no longer here. So we'll never know what that sounds like.

Cheryl Tipp:

That's right. So that was a illustration of a Carolina parakeet in a section where we're looking at voices that we can no longer hear, some of which were recorded before they became extinct. But this particular species, the Carolina parakeet was painted in the 19th century, became extinct in the 19th century, early 19th century, and recorded sound and become possible until 1877, or pre-recorded sound, being able to record and then playback 1877 field recording didn't really kick off until the 20th century. So by the time you know, people could go into the field, you couldn't find that species anymore. So there are some species that will never know what they sounded like, you know, you might have a written description, you might have a musical translation maybe, but it's not the same as hearing, you know, the actual living species. So is it Yeah, it's a great shame when you see things like that.

Steve Roe:

Yeah, I guess we sometimes forget how lucky we are to be able to record these sounds. And we think, Oh, we can take all these bats now. But that might not be the case in the future, I guess. Exactly. Just wrapping up, then, when people send your sound recordings or the stuff you've got in the archives, you know, how are they stored? How many different mediums are they on and how does that sort of cataloguing work, you know, with I'm thinking with the books, we know that as materials degrade the restoration techniques. How do you restore sound?

Cheryl Tipp:

Well, we have I think, over 40 carriers within the sound archive, minds normally. Shellac, vinyl, open reel tape, MiniDisc, DAT cassette, born digital on we've just wrapped up a five year project a digitization project. So for my materials, so much of my open reel tape has been digitised because that's now an obsolete format. And if we don't digitise, we won't be able to get the sound off, and then we lose that sound. So you know, we're the ones that are sort of custodians of the sound, we need to make sure that we can preserve it. So there's been a lot of digitization work going on. And that sort of continues in our normal work anyway. So we're just migrated from the obsolete format to digital and then even a digital files will then need to be migrated to a higher better version down the line so it never it never ends our work.

Steve Roe:

Do you try and restore the sound? Or do you keep the recordings as is?

Cheryl Tipp:

When we do our first transfer it would be as is. So warts and all, you know, bangs, hits, voices, all of these things. So always have a master. If it's going to be used for an exhibition or radio or something else, we would do a cleaned up version. But our practice is you just do your straightforward no tighten up do keep it as is no edits nothing. So you preserve the authenticity of the recording. And then later on down the line, you can make more cleaned up versions. But yeah, that's why when material comes into the archive, very much prefer it just to be raw, you know, no sort of line taking out chunks, just just keep it raw. And then later on, we can restore it if necessary. We do restore earlier recordings to take up clicks and things like that. But that's after we've done our basic raw transfer

Steve Roe:

Cheryl Tipp thank you very much for coming on BatChat

Cheryl Tipp:

Thank you very much for coming. I hope everyone comes to the exhibition and has a great time!

Steve Roe:

Animals; Art, Science and Sound is open until Monday, the 28th of August 2023. Tickets and all the information you need can be found on the exhibition webpages. And we've put a link in the show notes, along with a link to that greater horseshoe recording of John Hooper's made on the Holgate Mk VI detector. There's also a link to a journal article about John Hooper's bat recording activities. Along with a link to Cheryl's Twitter profile, we can see more photos from the exhibition. My thanks to Cheryl and the team at the British Library for setting up that interview. It really is a worthwhile exhibition to get along to this summer. Recording for BatChat series five is underway and will be coming later in the year. So tap that follow button in your podcast app, and that way you'll get a notification of when that's available. We're looking for places and people to visit from across the UK. So if you're working on a great bat project, or have a story about the bats in your area to share, please get in touch via the address in the show notes. Have a fantastic summer getting out there and enjoy seeing and hearing bats in the night sky. And on that note, I'm going to leave you with one of Cheryl's own recordings which sits in the British Library. The record's metadata tells us it was recorded on a coastal lane boarded by arable fields close to Pagham harbour in West Sussex on the 16th of September 2000 names it's of common pipistrelles leaving a nearby roost believed to be in the nearby church heading towards the harbour to hunt. It was made on a Magenta 4 tuned to 45kHz with a Marantz solid state recorder on a call calm, dark evening.