Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Power of Public Speaking

by Kathryn Hadley

The Sound and the Fury: The Power of Public Speaking opened yesterday at the British Library, providing a taster of the library’s extensive sound archive collections. It is an interactive exhibition which charts the history and power of public speaking through a varied selection of famous speeches in world history from the last 150 years: from William Ewart Gladstone’s transatlantic greeting to Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, in 1888, to Obama’s inauguration speech last January.

The phonograph was first invented in 1877. Few eminent individuals were, however, initially captured on sound partly as a result of the rarity of recording equipment. Two exceptions were the recordings of Gladstone, the first British Prime Minister ever to be recorded, and Florence Nightingale, both of which feature in the exhibition. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that sound recordings became increasingly used as an effective and affordable means of mass communication. With the start of radio broadcasting by the BBC in 1922, the production of spoken word material increased significantly; however, it was only in the 1930s that this material began to be selected for preservation in the archives.

The British Library’s Sound Archive is home to over 3 million recordings drawn from BBC broadcasts, commercially issued recordings and private recordings. Visitors to the exhibition sit down to a computer and can sample some of the wealth of the archive by listening to recordings from all over the world, in English and foreign languages, and from a wide range of genres, from politicians, to royalty, actors and sportsmen.

Extracts include the only known recording of Gandhi in English discussing his religious views on October 17th 1931, after the Second Round Table Conference on the reform of the Indian Constitution, as well as Pandit Nehru’s ‘A tryst with destiny’ speech, which he gave to the Indian Constituent Assembly in Delhi in the minutes leading up to independence on the night of August 14th, 1947. The British Library also holds over 400 recordings from the Cambridge University Union debates between 1963 and 1999. The exhibition notably features Syd Dernley, who was assistant executioner between 1949 and 1954, arguing in favour of capital punishment at the Cambridge Union in April 1991.

Royal recordings include the first royal broadcast from 1923, Edward VIII’s abdication speech and Earl Spencer’s tribute to Diana at her funeral in 1997; wartime speeches feature the BBC recording of De Gaulle’s appeal of June 18th. Other lesser known speeches include: the acceptance speech by Richard Attenborough when he received his award for Gandhi; Ernest Hemingway's response to receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954; as well as speeches by prominent sportsmen such as Roger Bannister, reflecting on his 4 minute mile record.

Recording in the House of Commons began properly at the beginning of April 1978. One of the recordings featured in the exhibition is Ramsay MacDonald’s election speech on April 11th 1929 in which he addresses issues of world peace and unemployment. By 1929, to a backdrop of world economic depression, unemployment in Britain had risen to over two million. Today MacDonald’s speech (which you can listen to above) appears particularly timely:-
‘Great highways built, transport organised as a national service, a bold policy of housing restored […] By our treatment of the unemployed problem we shall stand or fall’.

For more information on the political career of Ramsay MacDonald, read our article written by John Shepherd for the 70th anniversay of his death in November 2007 The Lad from Lossiemouth

The Sound and the Fury: The Power of Public Speaking
February 3rd- September 30th
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Telephone: 019 3754 6060

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