Pathways towards Decolonizing the Sound Archive

Andrea Zarza Canova
(British Library)

The Collector as Producer

In an article entitled “The Role of Sound Archives in Ethnomusicology Today,” ethnomusicologist and archivist Anthony Seeger summarizes the historical interdependence of ethnomusicology, sound recording technology, colonialism, and archives. He looks at “the perceived, actual, and potential roles of sound archives in ethnomusicology” (261) and assesses the multifaceted impact of sound archives—understood as the repositories of research field work—on the history and future of the discipline. He highlights the public value of depositing field work in archives so that private collections can offer themselves up to international access and repatriation projects. As sound archives explore means of access, we see how practical, technical, and ethical solutions might contribute to decolonization, described by Elizabeth Mackinlay as one of the most pressing issues facing contemporary ethnomusicology.

Seeger raises an important point about the nature of field recordings:

The collector should consider him or herself to be a producer. All field recordings are produced; they are not simply “objective” sounds or events […] and their usefulness depends to a great extent upon the collector’s reflection on the recording process itself. (272)

A “collector’s reflection” is not always available to archivists amongst collections of sound recordings, however there is often accompanying documentation explaining the sound recordings from a technical and contextual point of view. There is great potential for researchers, archivists, and curators to generate these reflections where a recordist has neglected to do so; to disentangle the conditions in which sound recordings are constructed as “truthful” and “objective” representations. Where a collector’s reflection exists, it can be dialogued with and expanded, through the archivist’s temporal and critical distance. Sound recordings produced under colonial regimes should be prioritized for this interpretative process.

In this text, I write from the perspective of a curator working in the World and Traditional Music section within the sound archive at the British Library (BL).1 My aim here is to initiate a reflective process on how decolonizing the collections in this section could take place.2 By “decolonizing the collections” I mean finding ways to make audible the voices and knowledge of the communities present in them in an attempt to recalibrate what stories are told. “Decolonizing the collections” signifies a shift in the institutional attitude towards the histories of these collections and the institution itself, an open commitment to researching and interpreting the contexts in which colonial collections were produced, and to critically hold in mind that the very act of collecting—as an ethnographer or institution—in the pursuit of knowledge production is intrinsically linked to the enterprise of colonialism. “Decolonizing the collections” ultimately means that the institution, the BL, can relinquish its intellectual and physical ownership over sound recordings as they are put back into recirculation, entering a cultural and creative sphere where new meanings are created and those of the past are questioned.

The Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project is in many senses a prime case study to illustrate a possible approach to decolonization. This project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, is exploring the “decolonial possibilities” of the archival legacies of a series of colonial anthropological surveys, including a large collection of wax cylinder recordings in the BL collections. Though this project enquires into the history of just one of over 450 collections of unpublished ethnomusicological recordings from around the world in the care and custody of the section, which span the history of sound recording technology, it provides ideas and inspiration for how to grapple with this task across the sound archive’s collections.

Re-Engaging with the Past: The Museum Affordances Project

One of the collections which most explicitly reveals the interlocking nature of colonialism and early ethnographic phonograph recordings is the Northcote Whitridge Thomas Collection (NWTC, C51). The sound recordings Thomas made form part of the ethnographic wax cylinder collection,3 which gathers same format collections of varying provenances. Unsurprisingly, a unifying trait is that the geographies represented coincide largely with the British Empire, spanning East and West Africa, South Asia, Australia and Melanesia (Clayton 79).

The NWTC is the largest single collection within this umbrella collection and contains around 700 recordings on around 1,100 wax cylinders, a testament to the prolific activity of Northcote Thomas (1868–1936), who occupied the first post of  “Government Anthropologist” for the British Colonial Office.

Between 1909 and 1915, Thomas was employed to gather anthropological data—with a particular emphasis on local laws and customs—in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. He did this through widespread field work structured in tours, each with a focus on a different area and socio-linguistic group. In addition to data gathering, his anthropological surveying included photography, sound recording, and the collecting of artifacts and botanical specimens. The information he gathered was collated into reports published by the British Colonial Office and intended to inform colonial practices of  “indirect rule” (Basu, “N.W. Thomas”). As Paul Basu, Professor of Anthropology and principal investigator on the Museum Affordances project notes, “This appointment was an early experiment in the use of the emerging discipline of anthropology as a tool in colonial governance in the British colonial context.”

The Museum Affordances project sets out to critically examine the archival legacy of Thomas’ work in order to develop a more informed understanding of its historical context. More vitally, the project brings this archival legacy into the present by asking “What do they mean for different communities today? What actions do they make possible? How might we creatively explore their latent possibilities?” (Basu, “About”).

The work Museum Affordances is doing with the sound recordings in the NWTC collection is collaborative, experimental, and creative. To start, the project is using digital technology to bring sound recordings documenting a particular location or event into dialogue with the photographs, artifacts, and texts that Thomas also assembled. These different media were dispersed to different institutions after Thomas’ tours, and the processes of digitally reassembling them enhances our knowledge and experience of the historical contexts they document. By reuniting dispersed multi-format archives across different institutions in an online space, more direct access oppor­tunities for future research in the UK ­and internationally are assured.

Although Thomas’ collections physically remain at UK institutions like the British Library, an important part of this project’s work consists of retracing Thomas’ itineraries in Sierra Leone and Nigeria to return copies of photographs and sound recordings to com­munities. This direct interaction fosters awareness and potential interest in this archival legacy and is particularly meaningful to the descendants of those Thomas photographed and recorded over 100 years ago. These interactions enable key collaborations to be established, ones that the British Library alone would not be able to generate.

As well as community outreach in West Africa and its diasporas, the project has also forged institutional partnerships, for example with universities in the regions in which Thomas worked. Samson Uchenna Eze, a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has, for instance, analyzed a number of Igbo songs recorded by Thomas. He has transcribed music and lyrics, and engaged young musicians to re-perform them and use them as creative cues for new works. His familiarization with these sound recordings has spurred him to “rethink my own Igbo culture and heritage and to consider the important place of our Indigenous music traditions in building national consciousness” (Eze). It has also led him to reveal meaning which would remain hidden without his language expertise,4 like with the lyrics of the song “Onye Ilo na-akp (The Enemy Keeps Calling)” which reveal it as a protest song, against the colonial regime.5


Opening up the archive to projects such as Museum Affordances is an important way for the British Library to begin to create pathways towards decolonizing the collections. These should lead firstly to the communities where these materials have originated from, where raising awareness requires a huge investment. Without the input of local partners in the Museum Affordances project, the meaning of the NWTC collection remains obscured and partial, exclusive to its colonial history and the sound recordings continue to be physically and intellectually sequestered at the British Library.

Projects that aim to decolonize collections must go beyond generating interpretations about the colonial circumstances in which sound recordings were produced. Though new knowledge contributes to enriching historical accounts, the impetus that drives its generation relies on methodologies intrinsic to the very colonial context it attempts to untangle. Curators need to find frameworks for decolonizing collections that go beyond a Eurocentric canon, defined by Achille Mbembe as “a canon that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production. It is a canon that disregards other epistemic traditions.” In this ideal scenario, initiatives for projects to decolonize collections will originate within the communities whose voices, songs, and music are withheld in the collections. Curators will facilitate such projects and find ways to integrate Indigenous worldviews into collection management ­practices.

If, going back to Seeger, “all field recordings are produced […] and their usefulness depends to a great extent upon the collector’s reflection on the recording process itself” we should go one step further and question the assumptions and biases embedded not only within this “collector’s reflection” but also the catalogue records these generate, kept in collection-holding institutions.

Revisiting an archive’s legacy through creativity and experimentation should generate new methodologies for field work, ones that engage critically with their impulse for knowledge production. If the aim of such projects is to better understand and (re)contextualize historical materials, what methods might be developed for this purpose that challenge colonial knowledge production and accumulation? While unresolved here, this is a question curators, archivists, and ethnographers will grapple with as they re-signify their roles and contribute to re-shaping the relationship of ethnographic disciplines, methodologies, and the archive.

Institutional Approach


The British Library Sound Archive became a department of the British Library in 1983, with the name the National Sound Archive (NSA). It was founded much earlier, in 1947, as an independent entity known as the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS). Supported by Decca Records and a Quaker trust fund (Linehan), it occupied its first premises in 1955 thanks to the lease of a large property on the British Museum estate (Saul 171). In 1997, it moved to the British Library’s main site in London and adopted its current name, British Library Sound Archive.

It is beyond the scope of my text to go into how this complex and multifaceted institution (the British Library) is grappling with its history and finding ways to decolonize its collections, but it is important to acknowledge the existence of the British Library’s Decolonisation of the Collections Working Group, a smaller Decolonisation of the Collections Steering Group, and a public commitment on behalf of the British Library to becoming an “actively anti-racist organisation”’ which is in the process of setting up various working groups, focusing on a range of issues including decolonizing the collections.

Grouped as the ethnographic wax cylinder collection are approximately 3,200 recordings made on wax cylinders. Although smaller than the collection at the Berliner Phonogramm- Archiv, the collection at the British Library is substantial and includes the first sound recordings made in Africa (Harry Johnston in Uganda, 1901), of Australian Aboriginals (Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen in 1901), and the earliest phonograph sound recordings made on the Cambridge Anthropological expedition to the Torres Straits between 1898–99 (Clayton 69). The collection was included on the UNESCOs Memory of the World International Register acknowledging its “global significance” and “universal value.” You can read more in the BL’s press release.

Thomas’ recordings documented music, song and stories in many local dialects which have since been standardized. The Museum Affordances / [Re:] Entanglements project is working collaboratively with the Igbo Studies Initiative.

What the song reveals is more nuanced and is explained in detail in a blog post by Samson Uchenna Eze.


Basu, Paul. “N.W. Thomas and Colonial Anthropology in British West Africa: Reappraising a Cautionary Tale.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 22, no. 1, 2016, pp. 84–107.

__. “About.” [Re:]Entanglements. Nigeria | Sierra Leone | Re-engaging with Colonial Archives in Postcolonial Times, Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Chávez, Luis, and Skelchy, Russell P. “Decolonization for Ethnomusicology and Music Studies in Higher Education.” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, vol. 18, no. 3, 2019, pp. 115–43.

Clayton, Martin. “Ethnographic Wax Cylinders at the British Library National Sound Archive: A Brief History and Description of the Collection.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol. 5, 1996, pp. 67–92.

Linehan, Andy. “British Library: Saving our Sounds.” British Council, 2016, Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Mackinlay, Elizabeth. “Decolonization and Applied Ethnomusicology: ‘Story-ing’ the Personal-Political-Possible in Our Work.” The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, edited by Savnibor Pettan and Jeff Todd Titon, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Mbembe, Achille. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” Public Lecture, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2015.“decolonizing-knowledge-and-question-archive”-africa-country. Accessed 20 Jan 2020.

Saul, Patrick. “The British Institute of Recorded Sound.” Fontes Artis Musicae, vol. 3, no. 2, 1956, pp. 170–173.

Seeger, Anthony. “The Role of Sound Archives in Ethnomusicology Today.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 30, no. 2, 1986, pp. 261–76.

Eze, Samson Uchenna. “Revisiting some Awka Folksongs, Guest Blog by Samson Uchenna Eze.” [Re:]Entanglements, 20 June 2019, Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

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