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Arnolfini - est 1961

The first collection held by Bristol Archives that Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) digitised was from Arnolfini, Bristol’s contemporary arts centre. Forty years of artists’ talks, performances and more has come to life through their efforts.  Here is the behind-the-scenes view from the team alongside some clips from this spectacular collection.

David Brookfield, Audio Digitisation Engineer – Holding the cassette, I imagine the last person to touch it, forty years ago. As I examine the shell for damage and information, I imagine it brand new, being unwrapped and going into a 1970s tape recorder.

The needless bounce as the recording wakes from its long hibernation. There’s hiss and hum from recording circuitry long junked. In this 21st century room the voices have a smoky quality of age and culture. I focus on the quality of the upper frequencies; I make a tiny adjustment to one of the screws that holds the playback head, adjusting the angle by a fraction. The voices now sound bright and immediate, their information current, their meanings timeless.

Sam Bates, Audio Digitisation Engineer – Long before I became an audio engineer, I studied art and design. I was hugely excited to learn we were to digitise Arnolfini’s archive! Ranging from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, and with many different formats to get stuck into –  ¼” analogue tape, cassettes, CDs and minidiscs – it was the perfect way to develop our ways of working as a team.

We had to concentrate to capture each recording with the best possible sound quality. There were many technical challenges; often, items were poorly labelled or contained many different recordings.  We also encountered ‘Sticky Shed Syndrome’, where the plastic formulation that makes up the tape has begun to degrade. These tapes needed to be ‘baked’ in a food dehydrator for several hours before playback was possible.

Hearing some of the most important artists of the 20th century speak was a wonderful way to get me engaged with the project.

Philippa Lewis, Project Cataloguer – As project cataloguer, once the recordings have been digitised, I work with them to make them accessible for people. To do this, I work out the relevant cataloguing information; how should I describe it in the catalogue so future researchers can find it?

Many of the recordings were recorded on multiple tapes which often had little or no labelling. This created a unique cataloguing challenge.  It required detective work to piece the parts together and establish key information such as performers and dates. Fortunately, Arnolfini’s online ‘programme archive’ was a huge help. This was a great first collection to work on due to the range of the material and the challenges it posed.  Through this I developed a deeper understanding of audio cataloguing.

You’ll soon be able to listen to this exciting collection (reference #43371) in Bristol Archive’s search-room. UOSH is a national project led by the British Library and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For Bristol Archive’s online content policy, please click here.


Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) is an ambitious project. Led by the British Library and kindly supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, it seeks to save and make publically available almost half a million rare and unique recordings that are threatened by physical degradation or stored on formats that can no longer be accessed. Bristol Archives is an important part of UOSH; it is one of the ten sound preservation ‘hubs’ that have been set up across the UK to achieve this task.  Each hub will digitise and catalogue sound collections from their region; Bristol Archives is the hub for South West England and will attempt to preserve 5000 recordings from across our region by Oct 2021.