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Sounds of the Sea: Making a Mixed Reality Oral History Application for the St Ives Archive

Jeanie Sinclair and Philip Reeder, University College Falmouth, United Kingdom


This paper discusses a collaborative research practice, developed by design historian Jeanie Sinclair and sound artist Philip Reeder, which combines locative technology with site-specific audio to create a hybrid method for the research and dissemination of the oral history archive. Archives can be esoteric places that are difficult to access. This paper hopes to demonstrate creative ways in which oral history can be relocated outside the archive, particularly with limited access to technical expertise and/or funding. Walking is often the best way to get an idea of what a place is like, its history, identity, its many senses of place. This paper looks at how re-performing memory using locative media can be used as a playful way of making the archival search accessible beyond the walls of the archive.

Keywords: locative media, oral history, archives, walking.

1.0 Introduction

Archives can be difficult to access, often requiring permissions, appointments, or identification. Where the museum visitor moves, the experience of the archive is static. Visitors to the archive usually need to know what they are searching for. Browsing an archive of oral history is not necessarily a rewarding experience, and metadata is often insufficient to find the required information. Sometimes material is available online, but this is often limited owing to lack of resources on the part of the holder of the archive (skills and/or funding), and what is online is not always accessible to a broad range of audiences.

St Ives is a small seaside town in the far west of Cornwall, once dependent on mining and fishing, now better known for its historic art colony. This collaborative project arose from Jeanie Sinclair’s research into the history of the art colony in St. Ives. Instead of examining the idea of art colony in isolation, or connected geographically to other art colonies, it examines notions of ‘art community’ or ‘creative community’. These terms better describe the links - and disjunctions - between creative practitioners and the communities, individuals and groups, places and spaces, in which they operate. Using Memory Bay and the St Ives Archive, it explores individual and collective memory to look at how the history of place is created.

The St Ives archive is an independent community archive, set up by the community, for the community, in 1996 to record and preserve the history of the town. The archive collects newspaper articles, maps, legal documents, correspondence, catalogues and pamphlets, books, sound recordings, photographs, and genealogical records. It is run by volunteers and funded by membership subscriptions and donations. In 2008, the Memory Bay oral history project, a partnership between the St Ives Archive, Tate St Ives, the Leach Pottery, Porthmeor Studios, University College Falmouth and the St Ives School of Painting, was successful in securing Heritage Lottery funding to create an archive of recordings of local people’s memories of St Ives’ creative community. Visitors can currently come to the archive to listen to oral history from Memory Bay, but in order to reach a wider audience, we wanted to explore creative ways of extending the archive outside of the confines of the building itself.

1.1 Key Objectives

We wanted to produce a small project that enabled wider access to the Memory Bay archive. We also wanted to produce a model that was sustainable in the long term that could be used by other oral history archives, which would highlight the importance of listening to oral histories and generate more interest in engaging with this type of archive.

Secondary aims were to look at ways of creatively engaging with ideas of memory, history and narrative of place using sound. We were interested in using sound and movement to generate conversations around the idea of the archive, what it is for and the relationship between memory and history.\

2.0 Oral History

Reading a transcript of an oral history interview is like reading the script of a play; once it is written, it ceases to be oral/aural. It is the aurality of the oral history that makes it interesting, its ums and ahs, hesitations, silences, intonations, subtle inflections. Transcription can alter or distort meaning; it ‘turns aural objects in to visual ones’. (Portelli, 1991). In the transformation from aural to visual object, once written down in black and white, there is a tendency to erroneously invest the object with qualities of a historical document. (Portelli, 1991). It is a performance contingent on the place, space, moment and interviewer. Speech is always site-specific, relational and relative to place (LaBelle, 2007:11). The oral history interview is a performance produced by the relationship between interviewer and subject relative to the time and place in which it takes place. Informants speak not only to an interviewer, but also to a wider community through the interviewer, in a performance that is both public and private.

It’s an embodied performance, that can’t be repeated or transcribed, the archived recording is only a recording of a performance, not the performance itself. (Taylor, 2003:20) The oral history recording becomes a disembodied voice. This dislocation from place and person is compounded when listened to in the space of the archive.

Oral history is frequently characterized as problematic for a number of reasons. Oral testimony is not particularly useful to a historian looking for truth, and neither should oral history be treated as documentary evidence. As Alessandro Portelli sets out, oral history is different because “it tells us less about events than about their meaning.” It is not simply a search for credibility, there are “no false sources.” (1991) As such, this opens up possibilities for exploring the meanings of memory, as Huyssen (2002) proposes:

The past is not simply there in memory, but must be articulated to become memory. The fissure that opens up between experiencing an event and remembering it in representation is unavoidable. Rather than lamenting or ignoring it, this split should be understood as a powerful stimulant for cultural and artistic creativity. The temporal status of any act of memory is always the present and not, as some naïve epistemology would have it, the past itself, even though all memory in some ineradicable sense is dependent on some past event or experience. It is this tenuous fissure between past and present that constitutes memory, making it powerfully alive and distinct from the archive or any other mere system of storage and retrieval. (Huyssen, 1995)

It is this gap between experience and remembering that we wish to explore creatively, to find new ways of encountering the archive. The idea of the ‘gap’ itself, when examined, is not just one gap, but many. There is not just the gap between experiencing and remembering. There is the gap between my experience, and my remembering. There is the gap between your experiencing, and your remembering. Then there is the gap, or gaps, that perspective give to us between experiencing and remembering. One may feel differently about a particular event in life when remembering with a gap of six months, or six years, or sixty years. The ways that memory is remembered in-between can change the emotions attached to it. Embarrassing memories eventually become amusing, painful memories become sad, joyful memories become nostalgic. Every time an event is remembered, a memory recalled, that memory becomes augmented by the way in which it is remembered, in space and time. There is also the gap between my experiencing, and your experiencing. What two people remember about an event, despite standing next to each other, can be quite different. Our subjectivities, and our later recall, can be quite different, even contradictory. It is the dissonance and assonance that makes our memories interesting, and valuable. And then there is the gap between my experiencing, and your remembering. The interviewer listening to interviewee remembering, in a present, yet fleeting, moment of reminiscence. As memory is performed, the interviewer is part of the performance, agent of narrative, encouraging, interrupting, engaging. The many gaps in subjective experience are not negative spaces, but spaces to be explored, questioned, listened to.

Memories of place are highly subjective, yet when examined together, collective myths can be found within communities of place. Memory Bay, like many oral history archives, is a collection of interviews related by place. Rather than using the relationship to place as a way of grouping people in order to create generalizations, this method examines the complex and often contradictory nature of individual and collective memory, public and private. Rather than reducing these memories to the sum of their parts, to create another ‘grand’ narrative of place, our aim is to highlight difference and disagreement, and how these syncopated rhythms create communities of place, past and present. Contradictions and dissonance in memory can reveal much more about the relationships enacted in a particular place, and subjectivity is as important in creating meaning as historical ‘truth.’

3.0 Walking as Searching

Embodied experience of space, real or imaginary, as a tool for memory is an ancient idea. In medieval times, imaginary cathedrals were designed and ‘built’ collectively by groups of monks to remember theological ideas as an aid to contemplation. By attaching things to be remembered to peculiar and exotic icons placed around these imagined cathedrals, they could then journey around this space in order to create narratives of devotion. The archive contains memory. But it does not operate in the same way as the mind. The archive works through a system of hierarchical indexing, not by the association of one memory fragment to another. The search for meaning through memory is thwarted by the structure of the archive.

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing… The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature. (Bush, 1945)

So, is it possible to create an archive of the imagination, a kind of reified version of Borges’ Library of Babel, where memory can be encountered by association? Or perhaps we can build an emotional archive, where memory can be accessed by feelings? Or, could memory be put back in place, relocating memory in space, reflecting Bachelard’s (1958) suggestion that “space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.”

Instead of a cathedral, in St. Ives we have the freedom of a whole town in which to place icons and attach memories. These memories, once placed, can be encountered by moving through space, creating intimate or collective narratives of place; a search that is mediated by the searcher’s own memories of place. 

Studs Terkel, in conversation with Ron Grele in 1974, makes the comparison between the oral history interview and jazz improvisation; the interviewer knows there will be a beginning, a middle and an end, a narrative structure that interviewer and subject will riff on and create as well as produce. (Grele, 1991) There is both rehearsed narrative and spontaneous exchange that develops during the performance; linear and cyclical performance.

In thinking how to approach the musicality and rhythms of community and place, we began to think about LeFebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, (2004) and how a non-linear approach to a spatialized history could assist in our aims. The Rhythmanalyst “will listen to the world, and above all to what are disdainfully called noises which are said without meaning and to murmurs [rumeurs], full of meaning.” (Lefebvre, 2004:19) By addressing the located nature of memory and sound, the cyclical and linear of time and space, we wanted to find ways of overcoming some of these issues associated with oral history. Our aims were to address the spatial nature of memory and place; to allow people to access the oral history archive more easily, to find different ways of engaging with oral history. Most importantly, we wanted to emphasize both the orality/aurality and the performative aspect of the interviews, the importance of voice, in such a way that reflected critically on our approach. Combining ideas of rhythm and movement, this produces a performance of memory that creates narratives of place using music and oral history. Place and community can be explored to discover the ways in which memory is collective and individual, agrees and disagrees, is assonant and dissonant, fictive and factual, and how these stories form ideas of place, past, present and future. Rather than looking for historical ‘truths’ using oral histories, the collective and individual memories that are continuously producing or reinforcing ideas of place are often contradictory. It is the harmony and discord that shapes place and community, the rhythms of place and space that are synchronous and syncopated.

In order to explore these rhythms, and search for other narratives of place, participants wander around the town and encounter memory fragments from the oral history archive, uncovering hidden connections to create stories of community as they move through space. We wanted to explore how walking can be used both as a tool for research, and a way of sharing that research with other people. Participants can take an active role in the way that stories are told, and the stories of St Ives past communities can have a part to play in understanding issues in the communities of the present and future. The fragments of memory are pieced back together by walking, to create individual and collective narratives of St Ives that are filtered through the performance of walking and the participant’s own subjective experience of place. The narratives are ‘written’ by walking, and each voice becomes a ‘quotation.’ Just as a historian pieces together fragments from the archive to write a story, which is never complete but rather contingent, so the performance acts out not only how memory creates social spaces, but also questions the idea of historical narrative. Carolyn Steedman's Dust (2001) reveals the 'contingency of history,' how it is constantly rewritten or retold, its existence as memory (biographical/fictional), and the agency of those (historians or others) who do the telling or piece together fragments from the archive.  History becomes a ‘creative process’ of editing narratives.

3.1 Sound & Place-listening

Wearing headphones, participants experience place in a way that addresses their own subjectivity and place memory, to allow intimate encounters with the memory of others. Using oral history and place-sounds, each participant moves through space to experience changing sonic narratives of place and community that reflect its rhythms, harmonies and discords: “Soundscapes are invested with significance by those whose bodies and lives resonate with them in social time and space […] hearing and producing sound are thus embodied competencies that situate actors and their agency in particular historical moments.” (Feld, 2005:226) It is a collective, as well as an individual performance, creating unique memory narratives each time that generate further conversations beyond the experience itself.

Through walking, the text of oral history is juxtaposed with the materiality of place, creating connections, links and associations. The disembodied voice and schizophonic sound becomes part of the embodied assemblage of walking; a performance of a narrative that is non-linear, performed and re-performed through the action of walking, as one place filters through the ears of another. The walker is searcher/researcher, writer/reader, audience/actor, listener/voice. Walking becomes not only a physicalization of archival research, enacting a performance that hopes for serendipitous encounters, but also becomes a performance of the syncopated rhythms of the hidden connections between communities of place, past and present. The act of walking assembles stories from fragments of memory and embodied encounter of place. Both research and dissemination, the walk enacts both the rhizomatic nature of the archival search and the nature of connections of community and place. Poetic rather than didactic, there are multiple possibilities of encounter with different voices, as opposed to a walk that is linear, singular, one-way, directed. It becomes a co-authored narrative, with multiple voices speaking and writing the story of place through movement and proximity to place, and each other. Each walker experiences their own narrative of St Ives, according to how they move around the town. Individual voices confirm and contradict existing ideas of place, revealing links and disjunctions between communities, uncovering hidden relationships that are continually being made and remade, making, unmaking and remaking place through these hidden relationships. 

A search often relies on filters, with parameters that exclude or include aspects of an archive. Results in turn are viewed through the lens of the filter as it applies to the archive. The music of Sounds of the Sea was designed with these ideas, in conjunction with the changeable nature of a locative soundwalk. Unlike the studio environment or the cinema, the soundwalk headphone experience is one of endlessly varying spaces, maximising external factors at the cost of internal spaces and consistent narrative. It is well suited to the delivery of rhizomatic and poetic nuances apropos oral history.

Headphones on a soundwalk do not guarantee a uniform sonic fidelity, and experiences are emphatically non-interchangeable. The conditions for every participant’s search are different. Headphone soundwalks are a singularly mobile mode of delivery, and are paradoxically both private and public experiences. They are able to exploit and access a gamut of possible listening modes that are imposed through such circumstances. A discussion of these listening modes is beyond the scope of this paper; however certain notions of a mobile audience must be considered when designing the soundwalk. They may lose or gain focus unpredictably, and will not necessarily perceive or appreciate a linear musical narrative. Certain sounds may be listened to more than once, some never experienced. Due to the idiosyncratic nature of each walker’s actions in an interactive locative system, it will not playback or be perceived identically each time. This is fundamental in considering how to embed and deliver meaning through structures, spaces, and processes of a locative soundwalk so that they are accessible to every listener and their search.

It seemed appropriate to construct the sound-based music of Sounds of the Sea from places and time around St Ives. This provides another aspect for participants to search actively during the unfixed locative narrative that is activated through walking. Key recordings were taken from a quinquennial ceremony commemorating an eccentric mayor of St Ives, John Knill. As part of a wider agenda, the ceremony was recorded and comprised fiddle music, hymns, and ten young girls dancing. In addition, particular tourist walks of the thoroughfare, the pier, and a central church were recorded. Music constructed from these elements has the potential to widen the parameters and collection for the listener’s hyperlinked search.

Place in sound-based music is often wrought through means of reverb – a simulation of the echoes and acoustic reflections present in our aural experience of locations. Perhaps the most realistic simulation is through a convolution reverb, which essentially acts as a filter for the input, mapping out the resonating frequencies through time of that space. The listener can search for a similar example from his or her own aural experience, and thus can infer the general nature of the simulated space. Through a twist of the technology, a composer can substitute any sound as the model for this filtering. By way of example, a recording of a folk song can be filtered through the space of a concert hall, facilitating a search for the meaning construed in such a space. Alternatively, the folk song can be filtered through a recording of a choir singing a hymn. It will activate similar frequencies, rendering portions of the hymn audible, as if one is impossibly the echo of the other. Although not perceived by the listener as a realistic space, it does create the impression of a sedimented, shadow-like lingering of one sound in response to another. In a sense, one sound is mapping out another, searching for connections.

The result for this technique was the creation of four pieces. They are drone-like and contain little discernable structure. Music with these characteristics seems appropriate when, as Thibaud suggests, for the headphone wearer in public “a glance is all it takes to bring him back into contact with his surroundings.” (2003) Should s/he choose to focus upon it, the music does create a further contemplation for the listener. The affect of using reverb in this manner is similar to unifying two geographically dislocated spaces. It allows an unfamiliar memory and experience to reach toward one another, transcending normal confines of either mechanism whilst conveying a sense of the rich history and space of St. Ives to which the archive material alludes.

This method is particularly conducive to the objective of a hyperlinked search, as the music widens the possible experience of place. Contradictions and dissonance in memory are present in, and enhanced by, the music. Of course any historical inference is likely to be limited, but the sense of meaning and appreciation of context is intensified through the search.

In each piece of music something familiar and present on the walk is filtered by something historical and unfamiliar. Traversing the pier with the headphones may reveal a recording of tunnels under the pier, elevated when combined with the archive material. But it also reveals the final Knill’s ceremony hymn, sung by St. Ives residents high on the hills where the town meets the moorland. The present contains echoes of the past, and the listener’s sense of St Ives is enriched by a milieu steeped in recordings of tradition and the mundane. Of course the participant already inhabits a number of spaces, and is part of multiple places and times – the three different spaces heard over headphones and the world inhabited through walking (Thibaud 2003). This configuration is made more complex still when on a locative soundwalk, for the walking continually transforms these places.

This poetic endeavour on the idea of search sheds light directly on the friability of historical fact, and the importance of context and playfulness. These memories are represented with a wealth of possible misconnections intact. When blended with the archive material, a direct commentary is intimated; illustrating the oft-uncelebrated divergence that could provide generous outcomes for poetic historical projects. 

4.0 Building

The fragments of voice selected for use in the soundwalk were chosen on the basis that they firstly referred to a specific location in St Ives; secondly, that they might be grouped with other voices that mentioned the same location; thirdly, that they produced a story or narrative about that place, with an intrinsic sonic quality or playful aesthetic. This emphasises the spatial and relational links between voices, reflecting the relationship between space and community past and present, and maintaining a focus on creativity.

Once the initial selections had been made from the archive, we walked around St Ives collecting field recordings for the musical compositions, which the archive material is layered over. The initial versions of the walk were created using HP Labs m-scape software and iPaqs. The m-scapers software was developed in 2006 by HP Labs. Designed to be simple enough for children to use, an m-scape is created by defining a map area of the ‘play’ area, and adding objects (sound, images, video, links). As m-scapers software is no longer supported by HP, it wasn’t possible to use live maps, so we defined our map area by using co-ordinates from Google Earth, and a jpg of the area. The part of St Ives that we chose to use was defined by two factors: the places talked about in the oral histories; and the reliability of GPS. This is the oldest part of the town, known as ‘Downalong’ and is also the most picturesque, consisting of narrow cobbled streets and fishermen’s cottages. The drag-and-drop interface in m-scapers is simple to use. Once the map is in place, a GPS hot spot is defined by drawing a circle, square, or custom shape. The sounds to be added are imported into the library, and then dragged and dropped on to the appropriate hotspot. The controls are adjusted as desired; for example, so that on entering the hotspot, the sound selected will play. This requires no programming ability, although custom javascript can also be used. These simple controls were adequate for our requirements. The only visual material used was an image that appeared when the ipaq had a GPS signal; as the ipaq is a bit too large for a pocket, we wanted to reassure participants that the device was working, yet not distract them with unnecessary visual information. The image of the map used presented problems with accuracy in a town with such narrow streets, as zooming into the image made it blurry, and difficult to place hotspots accurately. As some of the streets are no more than two metres wide, GPS drift proved a problem, with hotspots drifting into buildings. Following testing, it was necessary to move some of the hotspots to counteract problems with map accuracy and GPS drift. This involved accurate guesswork.

After further testing, the initial project was launched at the St Ives September Festival. Festival-goers tended to be older people, with some young families. At this time the abstract for the soundwalk in the programme became problematic. The wording was deliberated over for some time, particularly when trying not to “put people off” that weren’t familiar with the idea of a locative media soundwalk; however, this concern had to be balanced against the inaccuracy of describing it as an audio tour. On the opening day it became apparent that we hadn’t been successful in defining what we were attempting to do. Initially disheartened by the experience and the weather, and feedback that people “just wanted some history of the Digey”, we then received more positive participant comments, particularly from local people participating. Technical glitches were a problem, with two of the ipaqs ceasing to function after the first day. This was of little consequence in comparison with the GPS drift in St Ives’ narrow streets. Carefully located oral history clips would disappear into houses by the end of the day, leaving participants confused. Despite this, many participants gave encouraging comments. We gained valuable feedback during the festival, and learned to manage expectations – both our own and those of our audience.

We discussed the need for participant maps; but decided for this iteration not to use any guidance. The idea of the soundwalk as an enactment of the archival search meant that we wanted to see how participants would react to this freedom. The idea that it was a search could also have been made more explicit, and was something that perhaps we’d taken for granted. Some participants were unsure about wandering around the town, preferring the security of additional guidance, and being told where to go. Notably, many were happy to take the headphones and explore. One point that interested us in particular about the walk is the social aspect; we hadn’t anticipated participants bumping into people they knew and sharing headphones, and discussing the project.

For the second iteration, we used Calvium’s appfurnace. Appfurnace ( is an online tool for creating mobile applications for iPhone and Android phones. The development tool requires a greater knowledge of Javascript. CodeAcademy ( is great for learning simple functions, though some may find this daunting and require assistance from a programmer. For the second iteration the functionality and aesthetic remains more or less the same, as the first, with just a startup image and an image that displays once GPS is active. However, the accuracy of GPS is far greater, and the possibility of expanding the playability of the application is increased. We were able to layer more “voices” in one area, in order that each time a participant walked through this area they heard a different clip of oral history. Greater accuracy using live mapping meant that we could more easily juxtapose conflicting voices, one after another, so that walking down a particular street, a mini-narrative unfolds. There are limitations to using this method, in that participants are required to both own a compatible smartphone, and be able to download the Calvium player as well as the soundwalk. The costs of putting the application on Apple’s Appstore and Android’s Marketplace is around £750, which is prohibitive. The independent nature of downloading an application for a smartphone is convenient for users; but it separates us as makers from the exchange with participants, and the experience becomes less social, more individual. In order to get around this, participants are required to come to a meeting place to download the player and soundwalk to their phones, and are asked to return to give feedback.

Accessibility is an issue that we are working on. A number of participants with tinnitus found the soundwalk uncomfortable to listen to, and we hope to address these issues. We hope to be able to provide a text version for those with hearing problems, which will convey the same kinds of experience of place and memory.

Learning from the first soundwalk, we were able to articulate the idea of the soundwalk more clearly. We explained the idea of the “Intangible Archive”, where searching the streets would to serendipitous encounters with memories. We hope to be able to secure funding for further equipment, which will enable those without access to smartphones to participate. Further iterations will be developed, in collaboration with a developer and live game designer. We want to create group performances that better reflect the notions of community and memory, and allow further conversations to develop from this experience. The next step is to continue some further, smaller demonstrations, in order to fine-tune the soundwalk. We hope to add more oral histories, making the “Intangible Archive” bigger, in preparation for a series of bigger events this summer.



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