Researching sci-fi sounds

Posted on Monday, May 8, 2017

Prof. Jean-Francois Lozier (at left), Bryan Dewalt (third from right) and Morgan Weir (fourth from right) with her classmates from various arts disciplines, including English, theatre and medieval studies

By Brandon Gillet

During the winter 2017 term, the Faculty of Arts and the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) teamed up to offer a one-of-a-kind course that gave students a chance to research sounds from the past.  This year, the Faculty’s new fourth-year, bilingual interdisciplinary seminar course (AHL 4900) featured a novel twist: instead of spending all their time in the classroom, students also ventured into a CSTM collections warehouse to conduct cross-disciplinary research into sounds from the past.

The course was taught by Department of History professor Jean-François Lozier, who is on leave from the Canadian Museum of History. He said that Kevin Kee, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, first proposed the novel idea as a way to collaborate with the CSTM that was in line with the Faculty’s push into digital humanities.

“We wanted to give students from across the Faculty of Arts a way to explore disciplines that might not be their own, and to explore a workplace: to give them an opportunity outside of the conventional academic box,” Lozier said.

Bryan Dewalt, director of the CSTM’s curatorial division, explained that the museum prides itself on hosting educational activities that involve its collections. However, Dewalt also knew that his staff members were unsure how to give the seven uOttawa students access to the collections, given that the museum is undergoing major renovations to prepare 7,400 square metres of new exhibition space before it reopens in November 2017.

“We really wanted to work with uOttawa but we’re so hard pressed right now to get our museum open and didn’t think we would have time to do a lot of preparation,” he said. “So we thought, why not have them work with some things that we had already selected for exhibition?”

The military control console that was part of radar system at CFB North Bay, used circa 1960 to protect Canada and the United States from air attack.

As a result, each student was assigned an object that had already been prepared for exhibition when the museum reopens. The students researched what kinds of sounds the items might have made, and then created recordings to add an extra dimension to the exhibits.

“Sounds are often an afterthought in a museum setting, so we tried to figure out ways we could get sounds to speak for the artifacts, to breathe a bit of life back into the objects,” Lozier said.

Given that the curators had chosen a science fiction theme, many of the items were futuristic Cold War-era artifacts, such as an electron microscope and early rocketry. Lozier himself decided to investigate sounds that would animate a military control console.

“This allowed me to participate alongside the students,” he said. “My role was not so much that of a professor who spouts knowledge, but more of a coach. I’m quite confident that the course has given students an unconventional experience.”

An X-ray tube manufactured by Canadian General Electric sometime between 1900 and 1920.

Morgan Weir first heard about the course in a Faculty email and was immediately interested in gaining museum experience. The Classical Studies student was assigned to study an early X-ray prototype resembling a large light bulb emitting bright sparks on the inside. She quickly realized that figuring out what kind of sounds this object made would be a challenge, given that it hadn’t worked in almost a century.

“On the basis of my own research and insight from one of the curators, I was able to create a soundscape of what I thought the X-ray tube would sound like,” said Weir.

“What stood out for me the most was how helpful, yet not too involved, the museum staff were. They were always there to help us with historical information and offered suggestions that we might not have thought of – but they also allowed us to have complete creative control.”

A rocket manufactured in the 1960s by Bristol Aerospace that carried scientific equipment into the upper atmosphere to conduct experiments and observations.

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