Dial up the past with village phone box

Technology brings alive Debenham’s oral history project 

A red telephone box in the mid-Suffolk village of Debenham has been refitted so that callers can travel in time. Sound artist Mike Challis recorded local people of all ages – including children at primary and secondary schools – to bring the past alive.

Old payphone adapted for Debenham 'History Box' oral history project

The ‘History Box’ project has been funded by Mid Suffolk District Council, in collaboration with Debenham Parish Council which owns the phone box. 

The project launched with a timely collection of 12 memories of the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It includes the memory of a man who was seven at the time and wanted to watch the event on TV – but his mother sent him outside to play. 

The inclusive project also features more recent history. Another set of memories included in the launch are on the theme ‘Half My Life Ago’.  

‘I recorded eight year-olds talking about things that happened when they were four,’ Dr Challis told the East Anglian Daily Times, ‘which of course for them was a long time ago.’  

The recordings ‘are all about people and events in the village,’ Dr Challis tells ‘There’s the Secret Army auxiliary units from the war, the making of the village sign, and memories of trades such as tailors and saddle-makers, village events and characters.

The project involves some sophisticated tech – but Dr Challis also had to consider the needs of the people he interviewed, both old and very young.  

‘I have professional gear,’ Dr Challis continues. ‘I could have used a big Sennheiser MKH 60 short gun microphone and SoundDevices recorder. But to make things less intimidating for the interviewees, I tended to use a Beyerdynamic short shotgun in a Rycote softie’ – a furry windshield – ‘with a handheld Olympus LS-11 digital recorder.’ 

It also took some ingenuity to patch the latest technology to the old phone box. ‘The player in there is based on a Robertsonics WAV trigger audio player board,’ Dr Challis tells us. ‘I hacked a payphone to act as triggers for the 16 pins.’ 

‘The player can hold 4,000 stories so we can directly access 12 memories while a button calls up a random recording from the others.’ 

This means there’s plenty of potential to curate further collections of memories – meaning that this vivid exploration of the past will also have a long future. 

‘The plan is to keep the History Box oral histories in place permanently and curate a new dozen focused stories each month or two,’ says Dr Challis.  

In related news, the 1960s heyday of a main street in Barnsley has been recreated virtually using cutting-edge technology and local people’s memories as part of an ambitious regeneration project.

Photo courtesy of Dr Mike Challis.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top