Dr Rachel Connor, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, has recently returned from a visit to Harvard University in Boston. She is involved in a research project with academics from Harvard’s History of Science department, who have curated a nine month exhibition on radio technology and culture. An extract from Rachel’s BBC Radio 4 radio drama ‘The Cloistered Soul’ is featured in the exhibition. In this blog post, she outlines the nature of her contribution to the exhibition and how it is shaping her current and ongoing research.
What do a set of keys, a flattened sheet of brass and a pair of shoes have in common?
They’re not, as you might think, the subject of some strange riddle but objects included in the exhibition ‘Radio Contact: Tuning in to Politics, Technology and Culture,’ which is curated by Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI). These objects, amongst others, are props for a ‘Foley stage’ learning station, in which visitors (following Foley artists who, historically, were employed to create effects for live radio drama broadcasts) experiment with objects to add sound to pre-recorded scripts (including mine). Captured on an app, the audio pieces can then be broadcast digitally on Twitter and Facebook.
Closely affiliated to the History of Science department, the CHSI has played a key part in Harvard’s academic development. Calling itself the ‘laboratory of laboratories’, it is a repository of scientific instruments dating back to the eighteenth century and one of the largest and best documented in North America. Part of Harvard’s consortium of museums of science and culture, the CHSI curates a biennial exhibition to feature key objects in the collection. This year, the focus is on radio. These days, when so much of our news and entertainment comes from digital sources – podcasts, ‘watch on demand’ and ‘listen again’ – it’s hard to remember, or imagine, radio’s reach. It is one of the aims of ‘Radio Contact’ to remind us.
As a discipline, History of Science stands at a fascinating intersection of technology, art and culture. While the physical properties of the objects are showcased in the ‘Radio Contact’ exhibition, and are works of art in themselves, they are curated in such a way as to tell a story – about the history and culture of radio, both in the Boston area and internationally. Stories are key to the visitor’s experience: we are guided through the invention of radio, its social significance and political impact through text, images, objects and audio stations that explore three broad areas of radio’s history: ‘listening’, ‘tinkering’ and ‘broadcasting.’
I was first approached by the CHSI in November 2015 for permission to use The Cloistered Soul in the ‘broadcasting’ section. Fast forward a few months – a flurry of transatlantic emails, plans for an app and visitor survey questions, a research proposal, a funding bid – and I found myself in Harvard. As well as meeting academics, curators and designers, the trip gave me a chance to see the whole of the CHSI’s collection, to get a greater context for their aims and values and, of course, to see the exhibition first hand and gather thoughts for the research project, which will culminate in two journal articles.
At the outset, my aim was to examine how the adaptation of text to digital media might promote knowledge about both creative practice (making a sound text) and scientific heritage. But the visit has prompted wider, further-reaching questions about the connections between tacit knowledge of science’s material culture (prompted by the instruments themselves) and the practice of creating narrative; about the relationship between actual, physical ‘things’ and their digital representation.
I’ve found, though, that the repercussions of this visit to Harvard, the first of three this year, extend beyond this current project on radio technology and culture (and I’m grateful to the Centre for the Culture and the Arts for funding the research in which this can happen). I’ve started to think more broadly about the interconnections between science and the arts/humanities and how that shapes my approach to creativity. This is ironic, given how little interest I had in the sciences at school. But my visit to Harvard has reminded me or brought into focus how I already use the discourse of science to shape my stories. The concept of ‘phase transition’, for example, provides a thematic framework for my short story, ‘The Properties of Water’ (how my old Physics teacher would laugh!). My current novel-in-progress explores, in part, the effects of the technology of assisted reproduction on three women who have a very different relationship with it.
And I might have discovered – rooting around in the CHSI’s store of exhibits in the basement of Harvard’s Science Center – the subject of my next novel. Tune in, at a later date, to find out.