Thackray Medical Museum (in Leeds) holds extensive audiology collections and stethoscopes: objects to amplify the voices of others and the body's interior pulses and murmurs. Contained within generic archival boxes are antiquated examples of listening devices ("to make whispers audible" to quote one company's literature). Amongst pieces designed after bells and flowers and meant for concealment in beards and hairpieces are Queen Victoria's silver dome-shaped hearing aid and William Gladstone's black shell-type hearing aid.
Gladstone was four times Prime Minister in Queen Victoria's reign - though she famously disliked him and reputedly declared that he spoke to her "as if I was a public meeting". Audio recordings exist of both their voices, though both are barely legible. Gladstone's voice was apparently recorded on a phonograph cylinder and sent to Thomas Edison: "I lament to say that the voice which I transmit to you is only the relic of an organ the employment of which has been overstrained" (extract). Since this original recording was so poor, multiple 'false copies' were produced.
Murmur uses a automated system to send voice recordings (reading this extract from the Gladstone speech) around a small chain of listening aids. The whispers pass through the aids, starting with Gladstone's and ending with Victoria's. The voice becomes increasingly 'coloured' by the acoustics of these objects.
The voice is both physical and ephemeral. When we speak, what is transmitted, leaked and received?
Murmur was commissioned as part of 'Thackray Uncovered' March 2017 - June 2017 in which three artists were invited to respond to Museum artefacts not currently on view. A one-off live version was presented at the opening on March 18th 2017, otherwise a pre-recorded version was available on headphones within the exhibition.