The UCL Ethnography Collection boasts a wide range of musical instruments, particularly from West Africa; objects which realise an extremely limited proportion of their experiential potential when displayed digitally as singular images. Even on physical viewing the already ghostly existence of the objects is weakened further by their muteness. The five objects were chosen for the percussive qualities, with criteria narrowed further by an ambition to diversify the type of sounds producible within the percussion genre. The objects are almost exclusively examples of Igbo instruments, however a Haida rattle has been included due to its aesthetic appeal and to draw attention to similarities between the two musical cultures. Since the objects in the Ethnography Collection lack biographical information, they are particularly deserving of investigations into their ahistorical functions, of which the majority are sensual.
In Orhan Pamuk’s 2009 novel The Museum of Innocence, Kemal states that: “Real museums are places where time is transformed into space.” The validity of this claim exists in tandem with its implication that un-real museums are something else. Where reality transforms from material to digital, Kemal’s statement is reversed, and the ‘space’ of museums morphs back into a temporal dimension. Exploring digital collections brings digital objects into existence only for as long as they are visible on our screens, and therefore operate in an entirely different conceptual space to ‘real’ objects in ‘real’ museums.
Images engage with this new dimensional format only so much as printed photographs engage with our material reality. Film, on the other hand, requires a mediatory mechanism such as projection or, in our case, digitisation; a characteristic implicit in its exploitation of temporal space. As such, it falls to the curator of digital collections to make use of this dimensional restructuring: 2D video replaces static 3D objects; actively contextual sound replaces strangers’ footsteps; didactic telephoto scanning replaces the wandering eye of the spectator with a short concentration span.
Certain characteristics of a ‘real museum’ experience are non-transformable; such as the somewhat inexplicable spatial relationship people share with objects. However, a significant aspect of this relationship is tied up with the tangibility of material objects, an indirect phenomenal experience which is well understood as a cinematic effect. To compensate for the loss of spatial awareness, the videos in this exhibit use extreme close-ups to convey the haptic quality of the instruments, augmented by sound which intends to place the audience into a digital ‘space,’ thus minimising any experiential residue of material reality which craves physical proximity.
Keeping Time brings together five digital renditions of existing material objects as audiovisual experiences, augmenting the conventional photographic portrayal of digital objects online. Since original recordings of the specific instruments are limited or unobtainable, a certain degree of artistic license has been demonstrated. Field recordings by anthropologists and collectors, or sound from modern home-video recordings of musical performances on YouTube, have been used to illustrate the images. Ideally, pre-colonial recordings of each instrument’s sonic role in its respective culture would soundtrack the videos in order to convey an authentic original atmosphere, however in lieu of this authenticity the audience experiences an interesting montage of old and new. The physical instruments, many quite easily over a hundred years old, meet their modern offspring or geographical cousin in these videos, a juxtaposition that brings into question the evolution of and colonial effects on music and the culture it represents, along with the value of ‘montage’ itself within the museum context.