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Credit: Katarzyna Puzon
A shellac record from the Lautarchiv collection.

This shellac record comes from the collection of the Lautarchiv—the sound archive of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It is one of around 4,500 shellacs stored there, the large majority of which are speech recordings.

The history of this archive—and of all other archives of this kind—is inextricably linked with the invention of the phonograph in 1877, which revolutionized the way sound began to be reproduced. Science also made use of this novel technological device. Musicologists, linguists, psychologists, and ethnologists began to use the phonograph and later also the gramophone to record and study sounds.

Such was the case with the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission. Founded in 1915, it aimed to record the music played and the languages spoken by soldiers who had fallen into German captivity during World War I. The soldiers interned in the prisoner-of-war camps came from all over the world. Scientists from various disciplines saw this as an excellent opportunity to conduct research in these camps. Prisoners of war became research objects.

How does one listen to such recordings made on shellac records? Although they have been digitized, shellacs can still be played. The difficult legacy these objects carry brings to the fore the palpable dissonance between the urge to make them seen (and their sounds heard), on the one hand, and the need to refrain from doing so, on the other. This conundrum could indeed be solved by the idea of the silent object—and the silent shellac. Through the shellac, sounds remain seen—on the record, so to speak. Silence acts as a statement about the contentious heritage of the recordings. This is how I think about this object held in the Lautarchiv, where shellacs are stored in windowless rooms, detached from their subjects.


Katarzyna Puzon

Katarzyna Puzon is an anthropologist and a research associate at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Committed to transdisciplinary research, she has wide-ranging scholarly interests, with a major focus on the anthropology of time, critical heritage perspectives, and public makings. Beyond working on sound archives and their entangled legacies, she is finishing a book on temporality, heritage, and loss in Beirut.

Cite as

katarzyna-puzon. 2024. “On the Record.” Anthropology News website, January 11, 2024.