Cochrane Smith acknowledged by UNESCO

BY ROD BUTLER

Image of Fanny Cochrane Smith and Horace Watson courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

WARNING: this article contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

On 9 February 2017, we celebrated the inscription of the 1899 and 1903 Fanny Cochrane Smith Tasmanian Aboriginal recordings into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

These are the only sound recordings of Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905), the last known fluent speaker of any one of the original Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Her words and songs provide a unique insight into Tasmanian Aboriginal society, culture and spiritual life.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) is the custodian of the recordings, and the NFSA has provided specialist preservation and curatorial services.

These invaluable recordings are now in great company. The register contains some of Australia’s greatest cultural treasures, including James Cook’s journal, the Mabo case manuscripts and First World War diaries. The NFSA now has three items on the register, following previous inductees the Cinesound Movietone Australian Newsreel collection and the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang.

The selection process for the register is managed by a committee of specialists who operate under the auspices of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO.  Since the program began in 2000, only 57 works have been inscribed onto the register. The Fanny Cochrane Smith nomination was developed through a collaboration with TMAG. Our work was further shaped through discussions with members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and with international experts in the field, including a descendent of Fanny Cochrane Smith who is currently working as a curator at the British Museum.

Inscription on the register not only highlights the cultural value of the work, it also facilitates discussion and the exchange of information with experts from around the world. This is particularly important in the case of the Fanny Cochrane Smith recordings, which contextualise a period of catastrophic disruption to Tasmanian Aboriginal society, and provide a greater understanding of the ongoing impact of that period over the subsequent years. Inscription can also facilitate technical discussions which may lead to new preservation methods being applied to ensure the ongoing accessibility of the works.  

The Cochrane Smith cylinders are made from brown wax, which gets very brittle with age. Cracking and breaking is common, and the wax can be so soft that significant damage is possible if they are played more than a few times or if an incorrect stylus is used.

New technologies, developed through initiatives such as the Irene project,  can digitally map the surface of a cylinder and then use image analysis to retrieve the sound recording with minimal noise and without touching the surface of the cylinder, allowing for the preservation of better quality recordings. The NFSA and TMAG under the direction and guidance of the TMAG Tasmanian Aboriginal Advisory Council will continue to work together to assess how new technologies such as this could be applied.

Finally, inscription on the register provides an opportunity to celebrate and promote the power of recorded sound as an ongoing narrative in the development of Australian society and culture, and of the importance of cultural collecting bodies such as the NFSA and TMAG in preserving and contextualising those recordings.

 

A FAMILY LEGEND

A couple of weeks ago Tanya Fuller, a descendant of Fanny Cochrane Smith, wrote a comment on our australianscreen online website. We spoke with Tanya about her famous relative.

What is your connection to Fanny Cochrane Smith?
She is my great-great-grandmother; the grandmother of my grandfather Thomas Smith. There are hundreds of descendants; just on my side of the family, Thomas Smith had eight brothers and sisters.

Is her legacy well known by all the family?
Most definitely! Personally, she's a hero to me, and to my brothers and sisters. We look up to her. My mum was extremely proud as well. My grandfather would tell me how he could actually remember Fanny, as she was still alive when he was a child. He was five when she died in 1905.

What did you know about her growing up?
We knew mainly about her achievements, as she was very highly regarded in the area. Obviously you can learn about her at the museum, and I was so proud of that! I would've been no more than seven or eight when I first heard that scratchy old recording in a little box, in the museum. But now it's a whole section about Tasmanian Aboriginals, including Fanny's recording.

Did you understand the recordings then?
No, not until I got a bit older and listened to it a bit more carefully, and worked out what she was actually saying. I was 21 when I took the time to work out what she was saying, and that made me extremely sad. It’s extremely emotional to listen. I can't explain what it must have been like for her to watch all her race virtually wiped off the face of Tasmania. On the other hand, it's nice that it's there, and it makes me very proud of the work she did and the words she said. It's extremely important for the community, and I couldn't imagine anybody not being proud of it.

 

The recordings were added to the NFSA’s Sounds of Australia registry in its foundation year, 2007, because of their cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.