NFSA celebrates the sound of ordinary stories

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Six NFSA experts ‘wait’ to interact with visitors in ‘Storywall’ (L-R): Belinda Hunt, Chris Arneil, Tasha James, Tamara Osicka, Shingo Ishikawa, Richard Vorobieff.

WHEN the National Film and Sound Archive throws open its doors again on Saturday, August 1, a new, more people-friendly permanent space will also open. 

Tagged with that all-purpose arts title, “Hive” (think the Street Theatre’s Hive play development scheme, The Hive, or Queanbeyan’s The Hive arts house) the new space will be free, offering visitors an opportunity to explore stories about the treasures in the NFSA’s formidable collection.

The centrepiece will be a new interactive display called “Storywall”, produced by the NFSA and SBS Digital Creative Labs, but there will also be other interactive displays, like a trivia game to test visitors on their knowledge of Australian culture and history and highlights from the Sounds of Australia registry, with all sections to be refreshed regularly.

I caught up with curator Tamara Osicka, one of the six NFSA experts “waiting” for visitors to interact with them in “Storywall” where life-size projections of themselves, accessible using mobile devices, will be seen digitally, showcasing items from the collection and chatting about their work.

Osicka’s favourite object is a 1930s aluminium record made by a woman in London wishing her granddaughter in Birmingham a happy birthday, a touching reminder, she thinks, that the social isolation so evident in today’s lockdowns, is something people have been grappling with for a long time. 

Curator Tamara Osicka and a unique 1930s aluminium record made by a woman wishing her granddaughter a happy birthday.

“The disc was recorded in 1935 and was a message to her granddaughter Melda saying happy birthday from her grandma, who couldn’t come to her birthday party,” she says, explaining that the disc, never played at the time, was first played to Melda as an 84-year-old when the NFSA digitised it after her family, who had migrated to Australia in the 1950s, donated it to the archive.

“I specialise in working with the sound collection,” says Osicka, who’s been with the archive since 1995. 

“Music and speeches, environmental sounds, any sort of format, everything from wax cylinders to vinyl or technology like the MP3.

“Recorded sound evokes emotion and memories of the sound of someone’s voice… it’s able to take you back to a particular period. This has always been an important part of the archive and remains so.” 

She’s particularly interested in Australia’s early sound-recording systems, including the wax cylinder, which was, she says, mostly for elitist people and very expensive to buy. 

But it was an important technology. In 1899, for instance, Aboriginal Tasmanian woman Fanny Cochrane Smith was recorded in English speaking her own language. And in Adelaide, around the same time, a wealthy doctor held parties and invited friends to make recordings, now priceless for the insight they offer into an earlier Australia. 

But, she says, the aluminium disc, much more democratic than its forebears, is a whole different story.

“The object I feature in ‘Storywall’ is a disc made at a booth in London. They were a bit like our passport photo cubicles, you’d step in, insert your money and make a 60-second recording which would come out on an aluminium disc… you’d be provided with wooden needles and a brown paper envelope to send it to the person your message was intended for.”

Automatic booths, she says, were installed in the 1930s in railway stations or tourist destinations. The NFSA has a disc made on Brighton Pier where a woman complains about getting blisters from exposure to the sun.

To Osicka, such recordings help document a time when our communities were moving away from family singalongs around the piano to record players which, she says, became “reasonably ubiquitous” in Australia. 

“Our project is called ‘Storywall’ because curators talk about a favourite object and the work we do, giving a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work in this beautiful, interesting collection,” she says.

Platform shoes worn by Hugo Weaving in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, which won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 1995.

The subject matter, she adds, is diverse. Documents and artefacts conservator Shingo Ishikawa, has chosen the platform shoes worn by Hugo Weaving in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, and indigenous connections manager Tasha James focuses on the hat worn by Justine Saunders in the 1986 Bruce Beresford film “The Fringe Dwellers”. The stories are available in English, Arabic, French, Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish. 

The message Osicka is driving home in “Storywall” is that the NFSA has a suite of home recordings preserving the voices of ordinary Australians. 

“Most collections focus on celebrities or business people, so it’s very special to be able to hear the voices of ordinary people like office workers and family members throughout the years and they are often very personal… like this ‘letter’ from the grandmother.”

“Hive”, NFSA, McCoy Circuit, Acton, Monday to Sunday 10am-4pm, from Saturday, August 1. Free, no bookings required but to help keep everyone COVID-safe, visitors are advised to check nfsa.gov.au/visit-us

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Helen Musa
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