OPEN CULTURE

31 Jan. 2023

We have covered it before: school districts across the United States are increasingly censoring books that don’t align with conservative, white-washed visions of the world. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, The Illustrated Diary of Anne Frank, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird–these are some of the many books getting pulled from library shelves in American schools. In response to this concerning trend, the Brooklyn Public Library has made a bold move: For a limited time, the library will offer a free eCard to any person aged 13 to 21 across the United States, allowing them free access to 500,000 digital books, including many censored books. The Chief Librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library, Nick Higgins said:

A public library represents all of us in a pluralistic society we exist with other people, with other ideas, other viewpoints and perspectives and that’s what makes a healthy democracy — not shutting down access to those points of view or silencing voices that we don’t agree with, but expanding access to those voices and having conversations and ideas that we agree with and ideas that we don’t agree with.

And he added:

This is an intellectual freedom to read initiative by the Brooklyn Public Library. You know, we’ve been paying attention to a lot of the book challenges and bans that have been taking place, particularly over the last year in many places across the country. We don’t necessarily experience a whole lot of that here in Brooklyn, but we know that there are library patrons and library staff who are facing these and we wanted to figure out a way to step in and help, particularly for young people who are seeing, some books in their library collections that may represent them, but they’re being taken off the shelves.

As for how to get the Brooklyn Public Library’s free eCard, their Books Unbanned website offers the following instructions: “individuals ages 13-21 can apply for a free BPL eCard, providing access to our full eBook collection as well as our learning databases. To apply, email bo***********@bk**********.org.” In short, send them an email.

You can find a list of America’s most frequently banned books at the website of the American Library Association.

Note: We first posted about this initiative during the dog days of last August. But it seemed worth mentioning this program while school’s in full swing. Hence why we’re flagging Books Unbanned again.

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31 Jan. 2023

We live in an age of subtitles. On some level this is a vindication of the cinephiles who spent so much of the twentieth century complaining about shoddy dubbing of foreign films and public unwillingness to “read movies.” Today we think nothing of reading not just movies but television shows as well, even those performed in our native language. For an increasing proportion of at-home viewers — including on-computer, on-tablet, and on-phone viewers — subtitles have come to feel like a necessity, even in the absence of any hearing difficulties. Vox’s Edward Vega investigates why this has happened in the video above.

The chief irony of the story is that the intelligibility of film and television dialogue seems to have degraded as a result of sound recording and editing technology having improved. Back in the early days of sound film, actors had practically to shout into bulky microphones concealed on-set or placed just off it. Today, a production can keep a couple of boom mics suspended overhead at all times, but also rig each actor up with a few hidden lavaliers. The upshot is that dialogue almost always gets recorded acceptably, but it removes the pressure on performers to deliver their lines with the clarity they would, say, on stage.

For better or for worse, this has encouraged a tendency toward unprecedentedly naturalistic dialogue, manifest though it often does as slurring and mumbling. At the same time, says dialogue editor Austin Olivia Kendrick, filmmakers have come to believe that “if you want your movie to feel ‘cinematic,’ you have to have wall-to-wall bombastic, loud sound.” Yet a soundtrack can be cranked up only so high, an explosion of the same loudness as a human voice won’t sound like an explosion at all: “you need that contrast in volume in order to give your ear a sense of scale.”

This need to preserve the sound mix’s “dynamic range” — just the opposite of the “loudness wars” in popular music — thus keeps dialogue on the quiet side. You can still hear it clear as day in a theater equipped with up-to-date surround-sound facilities, but much less so when it’s coming out of the tiny speakers crammed into the back of a flat-panel television, let alone the bottom of a cellphone. Turning the subtitles on and leaving them on has emerged as a common solution to this thoroughly modern problem. Another would be to invest in a proper high-end amplifier and speaker setup, which, if widely adopted, would certainly come as a vindication for all the frustrated audiophiles out there.

Related content:

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The Distortion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Created “a McDonald’s Generation of Music Consumers”

David Lynch on iPhone

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

31 Jan. 2023

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Your Pretty Much Pop A-Team Mark Linsenmayer, Lawrence Ware, Sarahlyn Bruck, and Al Baker discuss the original 1883 freaky children’s story by Carlo Collodi and consider the recent rush of film versions, from a new Disney/Robert Zemikis CGI take to Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion passion project to a heavily costumed Italian version by Matteo Garrone, which is the second to feature Oscar winner Roberto Benigni in a lead role. Benigni’s previous try was a 2002 version that is the most true to the beats of the original story and maybe because of this has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Why do people keep remaking this story, and how has the original moral of “be a good boy and obey” changed over the years?

Read the original story. Some articles going through the film versions include:

Follow us @law_writes, @sarahlynbruck, @ixisnox, @MarkLinsenmayer.

Hear more Pretty Much Pop. Support the show and hear bonus talking for this and nearly every other episode at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

30 Jan. 2023

Welcome to Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club.

The first rule of Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club is: you do not talk about Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club.

The second rule of Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Medieval Mixed-Gender Fight Club!

Why?

The Public Domain Review’s managing editor, Hunter Dukes, wisely argues that it’s because we have so little to go on, beyond these startling images of “judicial duels” between men and women in German fencing master Hans Talhoffer‘s illustrated 15th-century “fight books.”

The male combatant, armed with a wooden mace, starts out in a waist-deep hole.

The female, armed with a rock wrapped in a length of cloth, stands above, feet planted to the ground.

Their matching unisex garments wouldn’t look out of place at the Met Gala, and provide for maximum movement as evidenced by the acrobatic, and seriously painful-looking paces Talhoffer puts them through.

Dukes is not alone in wondering what’s going on here, and he doesn’t mince words when calling bullshit on those responsible for “hastily researched articles” eagerly pronouncing them to be action shots of divorce-by-combat.

Such brutal methods of formal uncoupling had been rendered obsolete centuries before Talhoffer began work on his instructional manuals. 

In a 1985 article in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Allison Coudert,  a professor of Religious Studies at UC Davis, posits that Talhoffer might have been drawing on the past in these pages:

I would suggest that no records of judicial duels between husbands and wives exists after 1200 because of both changes in the reality and the ideal of what a woman could be and do. Before 1200, women may well have battled their husbands. Women understood and defended the importance of their economic and administrative roles in the household. After the twelfth century, however, law, custom and religion made marital duels all but unthinkable.

Why would Talhoffer bother including archaic material if the focus of his Fechtbuchs was giving less experienced fighters concrete information for their betterment?

We like the notion that he might have been seeking to inject his manuscripts with a bit of an erotic charge, but concede that scholars like Coudert, who have PhDs, research chops, and actual expertise in the subject, are probably warmer when reckoning that he was just covering his historical bases.

For now, let us enjoy these images as art, and possible sources of inspiration for avant-garde circus acts, Halloween couples costumes, and Valentines.

 

Explore more images from the 15th-century Fechtbuchs of Hans Talhoffer here and here.

via the Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

30 Jan. 2023

The seventeen-fifties found Western civilization in the middle of its Age of Enlightenment. That long era introduced on a large scale the notion that, through the use of rationality and scientific knowledge, humanity could make progress. For the Enlightenment’s true believers, it would have eventually become quite easy indeed to assume that we had nowhere to go but up, and would sooner or later attain a state of perfection. No such fantasies, of course, for Jean-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. Despite being an Enlightenment icon, he pulled no punches in attacking what he saw as its delusions, most lastingly in his 1759 satirical novel Candide, ou l’Optimisme.

Two centuries later, Western civilization, and especially the freshly formed civilization of the United States of America, had entered a new age of reason. Or rather, it had entered an age of technical, industrial, and organizational “know-how.”

The conviction that America could be perfected through engineered systems played its part in generating a degree of prosperity the world had never known (and would have scarcely been imaginable in Voltaire’s day). But it also had grimmer manifestations, such as McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose procedures ground away at the core of the anti-Communist “red scare.”

In Candide, Voltaire takes to task a variety of not just beliefs but institutions, including the Portuguese Inquisition. The playwright Lillian Hellman, who’d been blacklisted after appearing before the HUAC in 1947, “observed a sinister parallel between the Inquisition’s church-sponsored purges and the ‘Washington Witch Trials,’ fueled by anti-Communist hysteria.” So says the web site of Leonard Bernstein, Hellman’s collaborator on what would become a comic-operetta adaptation of Candide. With contributions from lyricist John LaTouche, poet Richard Wilbur, and Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker, their production was ready to open in the fall of 1956.

Stripped in the eleventh hour of Hellman’s most direct topical attacks, and even then criticized for over-seriousness, the original Broadway production of Candide ended after 73 performances. (Recordings of the original production can be purchased online.) Nevertheless, there was cause for optimism about its future: the show would be revived in London with a revised book two years later, with further new versions to follow in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, its lyrics supplemented by no less a Broadway master than Stephen Sondheim. The two-and-a-half hour video above combines highlights of two consecutive performances in 1989, conducted by Bernstein himself in the year before his death. “Like its hero, Candide is perhaps destined never to find its perfect form and function,” notes Bernstein’s site. “In the final analysis, however, that may prove philosophically appropriate.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

29 Jan. 2023

Note: Just a quick heads up, Coursera’s $200 discount on Coursera Plus ends on January 31, 2023. If you want to take advantage of the deal, you should have a look soon.

A new deal to start a new year: Between now and January 31, 2023, Coursera is offering a $200 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $199) gives you access to 90% of Coursera’s courses, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more). The $199 annual fee–which translates roughly to 55 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2023, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (by January 31, 2023) here.

Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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27 Jan. 2023

One can appreciate the art of Frida Kahlo while knowing nothing of the art of her onetime husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. But the experience of certain of her paintings can be greatly enriched by some knowledge of their relationship, the clearest example being The Two Fridas, which Kahlo painted in 1939 after their divorce. The largest of her numerous self-portraits, it presents the artist as a set of doppelgängers set apart by their attire: one wears a European dress, and the other a traditional Mexican one. The resulting tableau could, on one level, reflect her dual heritage; it also, as Kahlo herself put it, shows “the Frida Diego loved, and the one he didn’t.”

The Two Fridas is the subject of the video essay above from Great Art Explained. “The darker-skinned Frida on the right is the indigenous Mexican Frida that was adored by her husband,” explains its host, gallerist James Payne.

“The lighter-skinned Frida on the left is the European Frida that he rejected.” Presenting herself in the former fashion “sent a clear message of cultural identity, nationalism, and feminism” — but it also concealed the “broken body” that resulted from a bus crash in her youth as well as various other physical disorders later in life. This portrait, however, exposes the heart of “Mexican Frida” in order to show that it “remains intact, sustained by the small portrait of Diego” in her hand.

The heart of “European Frida,” however, is rendered as “disconnected from her beloved Diego,” and it “bleeds profusely onto her dress, a Victorian lace dress similar to the one her mother wore.” The two Fridas are connected through their exposed hearts by a single artery, one connected to the portrait of Rivera. Payne points out the particular symbolic power of a bleeding heart, a “fundamental symbol of Catholicism” that “can also be seen as symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice,” in the case of a culturally conflicted artist such as Kahlo. In retrospect, The Two Fridas also seems to express the inevitability of Kahlo and Rivera’s remarriage, which would come the following year. They had “one of the most obsessive and tumultuous relationships in art history,” as Payne puts it, but while both lived, they knew they couldn’t do without each other.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

27 Jan. 2023

New Yorkers can be a maddeningly closed-mouth bunch, selfishly guarding our secret haunts lest they be overrun with newcomers and tourists…

But there’s not much we can do to deflect interest from Grand Central Teminal’s whispering gallery, a wildly popular acoustic anomaly in the tiled passageway just outside its famous Oyster Bar.

So we invite you to bring a friend, position yourselves in opposite corners, facing away from each other, and murmur your secrets to the wall.

Your friend will hear you as clearly as if you’d been whispering directly into their ear…and 9 times out of 10, a curious onlooker will approach to ask what exactly is going on.

Initiate them!

Sharing secrets of this order cultivates civic pride, a powerful force that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis harnessed when developers threatened to obscure Grand Central’s beauty with a towering addition designed by Modernist architect Marcel Breuer.

Onassis wrote to Mayor Abraham Beame in 1975, hoping to enlist him in the fight to spare midtown Manhattan’s jewel from an affront that the Landmarks Preservation Commission called an “aesthetic joke:”

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?

The Supreme Court sealed the deal in Grand Central’s favor in Penn Central Transportation Co. vs. New York City, a (pardon the pun) landmark decision that ensured future generations could discover  the Beaux-Arts treats historian Anthony Robins, author of Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark, divulges above.

Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to budget a few extra minutes to hunt for Caducei and Vanderbilt family acorns next time you’re grabbing a Metro-North commuter train.

(Amtrak’s long distance lines operate out of Penn Station…)

Spend some time in Grand Central’s iconic Main Concourse.

Gaze up toward the great arched windows to see if you can catch a tiny human figure behind the glass bricks, passing along one of the high up hidden catwalks connecting office buildings anchoring Grand Central’s corners.

Perhaps you’ll be privy to some intrigue near the famous four-sided clock, a time-honored rendez-vous spot that’s appeared in numerous films, including The Godfather, Men in Black, and North by Northwest.

Admire the upside down and backwards constellations adorning the vaulted ceiling, marveling that it not only took five men – architect Whitney Warren, artist Paul Helleu, muralist J. Monroe Hewlett, painter Charles Basing, and astronomer Harold Jacoby – to get it wrong, their celestial boo-boo has been embraced during subsequent renovations.

If your wallet’s as fat as a Park Avenue swell’s, head to the Campbell Apartment atop the West Staircase. Formerly the private office of Jazz Age financier, John W. Campbell, it’s now a glamorous venue for blowing $20 on a martini.

(Hot tip – that same $20 can fetch you sixteen Long Island Blue Points during Happy Hour at the Oyster Bar.)

As for the East Staircase, nearly 100 years younger than its seeming fraternal twin across the Concourse’s marble expanse, that one leads to an Apple Store.

Browse various options for Grand Central Terminal guided and self-guided tours here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

26 Jan. 2023

We may have yet to develop the technology of time travel, but recorded music comes pretty close. Those who listen to it have experienced how a song or an album can, in some sense, transport them right back to the time they first heard it. But older records also have the much stranger power to conjure up eras we never experienced. You can musically send yourself as far back as the nineteen-twenties with the above Youtube playlist of digitized 78 RPM records from the George Blood collection.

George Blood is the head of the audio-visual digitization company George Blood Audio, which has been participating in the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project. “The brainchild of the Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, the project is dedicated to the preservation and discovery of 78rpm records,” writes The Vinyl Factory’s Will Pritchard.

The piece quotes Blood himself as saying that his company has been digitizing five to six thousand records per month with the ambitious goal of creating a “reference collection of sound recordings from the period of approximately 1880 to 1960.” He said that five years ago. Today, the Internet Archive’s George Blood collection contains more than 385,000 records free to stream and download.

The 78 having been the most popular recorded-music format in the first few decades of the twentieth century, George Blood L.P. and the Great 78 Project as a whole have had plenty of material to work with. In the large archive built up so far you’ll find plenty of obscurities — the Youtube playlist at the top of the post can get you acquainted with the likes of Eric Whitley and the Green Sisters, Tin Ear Tanner and His Back Room Boys, and Douglas Venable and His Bar X Ranch Hands — but also the work of musicians who remain beloved today. For the 78 was the medium through which many listeners enjoyed the big-band hit of Glenn Miller, or discovered jazz as performed by legends like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. To know their music most intimately, one would perhaps have needed to hear them in the actual nineteen-thirties, but this is surely the next best thing.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

26 Jan. 2023

Behold the new trailer for Marlowe, a new film directed by Neil Jordan. As the title suggests, the film centers around Philip Marlowe, the gumshoe detective that Raymond Chandler first unveiled in The Big Sleep in 1939. Between then and now, Marlowe has been portrayed in films by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, and James Garner. Now, Liam Neeson takes his turn. Here’s how the producers pitch the film:

MARLOWE, a gripping noir crime thriller set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, centers around a street-wise, down on his luck detective; Philip Marlowe, played by Liam Neeson, who is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress (Diane Kruger), daughter of a well-known movie star (Jessica Lange). The disappearance unearths a web of lies, and soon Marlowe is involved in a dangerous, deadly investigation where everyone involved has something to hide.

Marlowe arrives in theaters on February 15.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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via BoingBoing

25 Jan. 2023

As we’ve previously noted here on Open Culture, Orson Welles was not given to mincing words about his colleagues. And the older he got, the fewer words he minced, as evidenced by the clip above from a talk he gave at a Paris film school in 1982. During the Q&A, he took a question that quoted Elia Kazan’s remarks on the difficulty of raising money in America for a film about Puerto Ricans. Or rather, he heard part of the question and launched right into his thundering response: “Mademoiselle, you have chosen the wrong metteur en scene, because Elia Kazan is a traitor.”

Welles took a minute to elaborate: “He is a man who sold to McCarthy all his companions at a time when he could continue to work in New York at high salary. And having sold all of his people to McCarthy, he then made a film called On the Waterfront which was a celebration of the informer. And therefore, no question which uses him as an example can be answered by me.” Welles made a habit of publicly demonstrating his principles, both artistic or political. It was the latter that had decades before got his name into the journal Red Channels, one element of the larger American anti-Communist movement personified by Welles’ fellow Wisconsinite, United States Senator Joseph McCarthy.

“When Stalinism was fashionable, movie people became Stalinists,” wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. “They performed propaganda services for the various shifts in Russia’s foreign policy and, as long as the needs of American and Russian policy coincided, this took the form of super-patriotism. When the war was over and the Cold War began, history left them stranded, and McCarthy moved in on them. The shame of McCarthyism was not only ‘the shame of America’ but the shame of a bunch of newly rich people who were eager to advise the world on moral and political matters and who, faced with a test, informed on their friends — and, as Orson Welles put it, not even to save their lives but to save their swimming pools.”

This passage comes from “Raising Kane,” Kael’s well-known essay on Citizen Kane that plays down Welles’ influence on the film and plays up that of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. But whatever ground Welles had to resent Kael, he had more to resent Kazan, who gave testimony as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. That marked the height of the “Hollywood blacklist” that put a temporary hold on, or permanent end to, the careers of suspected Communists or sympathizers in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, Welles possesses sound enough artistic and political judgment never to let the one interfere with the other, as evidenced by what he said of Kazan after receiving a round of applause from the audience: “I have to add that he is a very good director.”

via Michael Warburton

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

25 Jan. 2023

Edison_Minstrel-Record

Three minutes with the minstrels / Arthur Collins, S. H. Dudley & Ancient City. Edison Record. 1899.

Long before vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and MP3s came along, people first experienced audio recordings through another medium — through cylinders made of tin foil, wax and plastic. In recent years, we’ve featured cylinder recordings from the 19th century that allow you to hear the voices of Leo Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Walt WhitmanOtto von Bismarck and other historic figures. Those recordings were originally recorded and played on a cylinder phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. But those were obviously just a handful of the cylinder recordings produced at the beginning of the recorded sound era.

Thanks to the University of California-Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive, you can now download or stream a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings. “This searchable database,” says UCSB, “features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.” You can also find in the archive a number of “personal recordings,” or “home wax recordings,” made by everyday people at home (as opposed to by record companies).

If you go to this page, the recordings are neatly categorized by genre, instrument, subject/theme and ethnicity/nation of origin. You can listen, for example, to recordings of JazzHawaiian MusicOperas, and Fiddle Tunes. Or hear recordings featuring the MandolinGuitarBagpipes and Banjo. Plus there are thematically-arranged playlists here.

Hosted by University of California-Santa Barbara, the archive is supported by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and other donors.

Above, hear a recording called “Three minutes with the minstrels,” by Arthur Collins, released in 1899. Below that is “Alexander’s ragtime band medley,” featuring the banjo playing of Fred Van Eps, released in 1913.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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Hear Singers from the Metropolitan Opera Record Their Voices on Traditional Wax Cylinders

A Beer Bottle Gets Turned Into a 19th Century Edison Cylinder and Plays Fine Music

Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings

24 Jan. 2023

“Here comes a trailer truck out on the open highway, miles from the nearest town,” says the narrator of the short film above. Suddenly, it becomes “important for someone to get in touch with the drivers of this outfit. How can it be done?” Any modern-day viewer would respond to this question in the same way: you just call the guys. But Mobile Telephones dates from the nineteen-forties, well before the eponymous devices were in wide use — about four decades, in fact, before even the massive Motorola DynaTAC 8000X came on the market. The idea of calling someone not at home or the office, let alone a trucker on the road, would have seemed the stuff of science fiction.

Yet the engineers at Bell had made it possible, using a system that transmits conversations “partway by radio, partway by telephone lines.” This necessitated “a number of transmitting and receiving stations connected to telephone lines,” installed “at intervals along the highway so that one will always be in range of the moving vehicle.”

As dramatized in Mobile Telephones, the process of actually ringing up the driver of a vehicle involves calling a classic forties switchboard operator and asking her to make the connection. But otherwise, the process won’t feel entirely unfamiliar to the mobile phone users today — that is, to the majority of the people in the world.

Cellphones have become such an integral part of life in the twenty-first century that few of us really feel the need to understand just how they work. But three quarters of a century ago, the idea of taking or making calls on the go was unfamiliar enough that viewers of a film like this would have wanted the mechanics laid out in some detail. Surely that held especially true for the industrial clients of Bell’s early mobile-telephone system, for whom its reliable functionality would translate into greater profits. Taking the longer view, this technological development marks, as the narrator reminds us over swelling music, “one more step toward telephone service for anyone, any time, anywhere”: a once-futuristic vision that now sounds practically mundane.

Related content:

“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

The World’s First Mobile Phone Shown in 1922 Vintage Film

A 1947 French Film Accurately Predicted Our 21st-Century Addiction to Smartphones

In 1953, a Telephone-Company Executive Predicts the Rise of Modern Smartphones and Video Calls

The First Cellphone: Discover Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, a 2-Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

24 Jan. 2023

Art forgery is a sturdy trope of film and fiction. We’re all familiar with the spectacle of a rarified expert examining a work, while a wealthy collector anxiously wrings their hands nearby.

As Maggie Cao observes in the Guardian:

Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter. What compels the prototypical collector to accumulate objects of beauty is usually a peculiar devotion to the power of singularity. The collector worships art’s power to move us, a power we imagine emanates from unique objects. Meanwhile, what motivates the counterfeiter is an undue confidence in the possibilities of replication. To deceive a viewer with a copy is to affirm that copy’s interchangeability with the original.

But what if art forgery can be used for good?

That’s the hope of Roger Michel, founder of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, who employs technological advances to preserve culturally significant objects and offer accessible tactile experiences to those with vision impairment.

Shortly after ISIS destroyed the Monumental Arch of Palymyra, he harnessed 3D technology to recreate the 1800-year old landmark in two-thirds scale Egyptian marble.

The public was able to get up close and personal with the model in various locations around the world, including New York’s City Hall Park, Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, and London’s Trafalgar Square, where Michel enjoyed watching passersby touching and photographing the replica Arch:

There are guys in Carnaby Street suits mixed with young people in hip-hop clothes and Syrians in traditional dress. It’s the crossroads of humanity, and that was what Palymra was.

Michel is also striving to convince the British Museum that all will not be lost, should it choose to repatriate the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles to Greece, much as the Smithsonian returned 29 Benin bronzes taken during an 1897 British raid to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.

Michel made his case with a robotically carved facsimile of the head of the Horse of Selene, above, which is all the more remarkable when one learns that he was working from photos taken on an iPhone and iPad while visiting the gallery in which it is displayed, after the museum refused his request for an official scan.

The item description on the museum’s collection’s portal notes that the Horse of Selene was purchased from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who took possession of it while serving as Britain’s ambassador to Ottoman Turkey from 1799-1803.

(The description neglects to mention that rather than allow him to adorn his home with this and other ill-gotten antiquities, a parliamentary committee ordered Lord Elgin to sell his vast collection to the British government for £35,000, which is how they wound up in the museum.)

Originally a part of the Parthenon’s east pediment, the Horse of Selene is such a fan favorite that the museum shop sells an “exquisite” hand-cast resin replica for £1,650, promising that it will make “a show-stopping point of focus in any home.”

Perhaps…though we’re willing to bet it can’t match the verisimilitude of the tiny chips and chisel marks painstakingly captured by the robot carver, which took about about 8 days to create a rough model once it received the scans, followed by some 3 weeks of refining. The robot got an assist at the very end from human artisans, whose handiwork Michel calls “the crucial 3 to 5 percent.”

Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, who partnered with Michel on this recreation, vaunts the precision technology makes possible:

You can recognize every scratch. You can see the flaws of the stone and you can see the challenges our colleagues from 2,000 years ago were facing. It’s like going back in time — you can feel the struggles of the artist.

The museum brass appears unmoved by the prospect of swapping replicas, no matter how excellent, for the frieze panels, sculptures, architectural fragments and other treasures of antiquity Elgin shipped home from the Acropolis in the early 1800s, though the New York Times reported last week that secret talks with Greece’s prime minister may indicate the two parties are edging closer to resolution.

This collection has been a cultural hot potato since Lord Byron, touring the Parthenon shortly after Elgin made off with so many its treasures, denounced his avarice in a poem titled The Curse of Minerva:

Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,

I saw successive Tyrannies expire;

‘Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,

Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.

Survey this vacant, violated fane;

Recount the relics torn that yet remain:

‘These’ Cecrops placed, ‘this’ Pericles adorned,

‘That’ Adrian reared when drooping Science mourned.

What more I owe let Gratitude attest—

Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.

That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,

The insulted wall sustains his hated name:

For Elgin’s fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,

Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!

The New York Times quoted a middle-aged London bus driver who voiced the opinion, as did the vast majority of respondents to a British survey, that the Parthenon sculptures should be returned to their land of origin, remarking, “It’s like the Crown Jewels. If someone took those, you’d want them back, wouldn’t you?”

His argument is a hard one to refute in an age when the innovative technical solutions promoted by Michel and the Institute for Digital Archaeology create opportunities that Lord Elgin and museum visitors of yore could never have envisioned.

The public invitation to the November 2022 unveiling of the Selene Horse replica stated that “Britain’s stewardship of the Elgin marbles embodies a psychologically complex story of obsession, possession, and assimilation – so far without resolution”, asking:

Might perfect copies, rendered in sacred Pentelic marble, suggest a possible path forward?

Readers, what say you?

Related Content

John Oliver’s Show on World-Class Art Museums & Their Looted Art: Watch It Free Online

Take a Virtual Reality Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

The British Museum Is Now Open To Everyone: Take a Virtual Tour and See 4,737 Artifacts, Including the Rosetta Stone

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

24 Jan. 2023

A new deal to start a new year: Between now and January 31, 2023, Coursera is offering a $200 discount on its annual subscription plan called “Coursera Plus.” Normally priced at $399, Coursera Plus (now available for $199) gives you access to 90% of Coursera’s courses, Guided Projects, Specializations, and Professional Certificates, all of which are taught by top instructors from leading universities and companies (e.g. Yale, Duke, Google, Facebook, and more). The $199 annual fee–which translates roughly to 55 cents per day–could be a good investment for anyone interested in learning new subjects and skills in 2023, or earning certificates that can be added to your resume. Just as Netflix’s streaming service gives you access to unlimited movies, Coursera Plus gives you access to unlimited courses and certificates. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat deal.

You can try out Coursera Plus for 14 days, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can get your money back. Explore the offer (before January 31, 2023) here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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