“Better than any monument”: Envisioning Museums of the Spoken Word

Richard Bauman


Within weeks of Edison’s introduction of the phonograph, late in 1877, commentators began to imagine its capacity to materialize the human voice in the form of physical recordings as a basis for the collection, preservation, and display of intangible heritage, conceived of as “treasures” of oral expression. Between the late 1870s and World War I, a number of visionary proposals for the establishment of museums of language were advanced by scholars in the U.S. and Europe. In this article, I offer a preliminary examination of the history of such proposals and consider the reasons that none of them came to fruition.


Phonograph; Recorded Sound; Ethnographic Archives; History of Anthropology; Heritage

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