Public historians love to find a voice that has not been heard for years, bring it out of the archives and back to life. The thrill of putting on your headphones and listening to a voice from long ago telling the story of their life never fades. Therefore, getting to work on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project has been such a privilege.
Recording stories, histories, and lives is such a necessary part of museum work but it’s not enough to create those recordings and then lock them away in a vault. The Ulster Folk Museum, in conjunction with the British Library and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is working to make these voices accessible to all before we lose them completely. Digitisation will allow anyone to access these wonderful histories.
As part of the Masters in Public History, Queen’s University Belfast works with National Museums NI to offer students an internship on Unlocking Our Sound Heritage and this year, we were lucky to be the two selected. Our three-month placement has allowed us to see every aspect of the work, from taking in collections from outside the museum, to cataloguing and then subsequently using the recordings to engage the public with the fascinating stories and people in the sound collection.
For me, this has meant being able to hear my late father’s voice once more. John McAtasney was the hand-loom weaver in Ballydugan Cottage for years, creating beautiful damask linen on the Jacquard loom. I grew up in Holywood and practically lived in the museum for most of my childhood. Although my father passed away in 2018, I listened to him singing, weaving and talking about his work. It was emotional but wonderful. On a personal level, I think how lovely it will be for families to hear long-lost voices once again.
Among my favourite recordings – my father aside – I listened to a Kilkeel fisherman talk of the German submarine that emerged from the water only for the sailors to plant bombs on the fishing boats and sink them all. I loved hearing the group of women giggle about the fun they had working in the shirt factory too.
I completed my BA (Hons) in History in 2019 and am currently undertaking an MA in Public History. My love of history first started by visiting the Ulster Folk Museum many times growing up and so getting to intern on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at National Museums NI in Cultra was incredibly special and rewarding.
I have learned so much from the fantastic Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team about collections management, the importance of digitisation, and the skills involved in digital cataloguing. My main role as an intern was cataloguing, getting to hear the incredible stories from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s was fascinating. I got to hear such a range of recordings, such as lovely interviews with people who had lived in the houses that are now in the Folk Museum, a man who experienced the Princess Victoria boat disaster, and blacksmiths telling stories about the forge.
Our internship experience has been fantastic and we cannot wait to see all of the exciting ways the sound archive can be used in the future, whether it be for academic research, education programs, or exciting community engagements events.
Our country has such an abundant and rich history and so to have preserved and heard the important, fascinating and, at times, funny stories, told by ordinary people from decades ago has been an honour.