Mermaids and Air Raids: The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project at National Museums Northern Ireland

In our latest blog, Sam Guthrie discusses his work as the Cataloguing Officer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project hub at National Museums Northern Ireland:

A selection of compact cassettes from the Somme Museum collection. The collection is an invaluable resource not just for the First and Second World Wars but also life in Northern Ireland during wartime.

I remember spilling spools of tape out of a clear cassette as a child. Watching the light rebound off its reflective, magnetic coating like water caught in sunlight. ‘Maybe, I’m paying penance for that childish destruction now?’ I think, as I listen to Tommy Cecil of Rathlin Island describe the story of a local fisherman’s marriage to a mermaid.

Extract from an interview with Tommy Cecil in which he describes a local myth about a fisherman who took mermaid for a wife.

Ulster’s oral histories and folktales are a pleasurable penance, however, and they’re the bread and butter of my work as the Cataloguing Officer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project hub at National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI).

I came to the project by way of my studies as a student on the Queen’s University Belfast MA in Public History. I chose the programme as a means of segueing between the career I had found myself in — project and events management — to the career I really wanted in history and heritage. I was particularly attracted to the programme’s focus on practical industry experience and the numerous opportunities made available throughout my studies and in Belfast. From January 2020 I volunteered for NMNI on the UOSH project and was successful in joining the team full-time in October.

NMNI has been participating in the UOSH project, funded via the National Lottery Heritage Fund and led by the British Library, since 2018 and as a small team we aim to persevere and digitise 5,000 recordings from our own collection and those of our project partners based in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man.[1] When the project wraps up, we will have established the leading digital sound archive on the island of Ireland; an invaluable resource for researchers, especially public historians seeking to find new sources and resources to utilise in their interrogation of our past narratives.

Sometimes it is fun and games! A selection of compact cassettes from the Manx National Heritage collection; interviews recorded in local pubs during the Isle of Man TT.

Our team consists of four members focused on three interrelated work processes; cataloguing, digitisation, and rights clearance. Effectively our work process is to identify, preserve, and record audio formats at the greatest risk. In practice we identify and catalogue each physical item, carefully stabilise these — when required — and preserve them in high-fidelity digital formats. We then listen to and create summaries of each, and seek out the legal rights holders and subjects for future publications permissions. It’s a painstaking process and relies on each of us balancing a best practice approach with our need for efficiency. It’s a heritage-meets-workflow approach that still makes time to engage with the material and appreciate its context and value.

More specifically, the focus of my role is two-fold (well, two-and-a-half-fold). First, I’m tasked with the physical cataloguing of the various analogue formats and any of the ephemera that comes with them. This has meant cataloguing everything from early twentieth-century metal-plated-discs (from the Manx National Heritage collection – these turned out to be from the colourful London-based Edison Bell company but that’s a story for another time…[2]) to Mac hard-drives from 2010 (these drives were from the Somme Museum collection and despite their seeming modernity they were especially tricky and highly at-risk of obsolescence).

While an item’s packaging often includes useful information this example of a didn’t hint at the rare metal-poated-disc inside.

Second, I’m tasked with listening to and recording catalogue summaries of the content of each of the recordings themselves, which is by far the most pleasurable aspect of the role to any podcast addict. Increasingly, with deadlines looming and hours of digitised audio building, this has meant training and supervising an outstanding team of volunteers (including more than a few students from Queen’s) to support this endeavour. We couldn’t complete this project without them and their efforts are already bearing fruit as we close in on completing a number of large collections. Working to the British Library’s own MARC standard we approach our cataloguing work with the eventual researcher in mind taking the time to record key subjects and topics, highlight items of significant interest, and cross reference important facts. I’m impressed how long can be spent debating the spelling of a local townland in Antrim or the capitalisation of quasi-folkloric figures. It’s work that my training as a historian has prepared me for and, I’ve got to admit, that my inner detective is thrilled with!

There’s a wealth of material in our archive that hasn’t fallen within the scope of UOSH and does need to be preserved.

Our work is detailed and often myopic but as the project approaches the homestretch we find ourselves beginning to ponder its legacy. While the British Library promises an eventual web-player, which should make around 100,000 recordings available on-demand, not all of our material will be made available. This is not for want of importance but often due to audio quality or the sensitivity of material. Our collections house incredible diversity with numerous items recording everything from butter making practices to shipwrecks on Rathlin Island; from curious healing cures on the Ards Peninsula to the War of Independence in County Tyrone; from the story of Belfast Celtic FC to the history of Quakerism in Northern Ireland. While our target still stands at 5,000 items digitised and recorded we’ve only touched the surface of our sound archive at NMNI (and barely the surface of the disparate collections of sound across NI). Now, our attention turns to the next steps of NMNI’s role in the UOSH project, not least of which is spreading the word of the invaluable digital archive we have been quietly building. It is a resource that should be promoted and made accessible to researchers from numerous fields but especially those interested in public history, Ireland, and Northern Irish society.


[1] “Biography – Edison Bell.” Accessed April 9, 2021. http://www.45worlds.com/78rpm/about/edison-bell.

[2] National Museums Northern Ireland, “Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.” Accessed April 7, 2021. https://www.nmni.com/get-involved/UOSH.aspx; British Library, “Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.” Accessed April 7, 2021. https://www.bl.uk/projects/unlocking-our-sound-heritage.

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