In January 2013, Rutgers Camden Center for the Arts presented an exhibition called “Visions of Camden,” which explored the city’s history through visual interpretations.
And one of the most instantly identifiable images is Nipper, the dog depicted in the Francis Barraud painting “His Master’s Voice,” whose likeness became the logo for the RCA Victor Company.
Now through December 18, visitors to the Stedman Gallery at Rutgers Camden can see and hear “Sounds of Camden,” an exhibition that follows the development of the Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor in Camden.
While “Visions of Camden” touched on the importance of what the company meant to Camden’s past, “Sounds of Camden” digs deeper and explores its impact on a larger scale.
“This is one of the country’s most fabulous stories,” said Stefán Örn Arnärson, the Walter K. Gordon Theater and Concert Manager and the exhibition co-curator.
“Sounds of Camden” documents – with a selection of original record-playing machines*, as well as aural memories and new sound creations, a listening booth, a recording booth, and more – not only the past, but how the innovative ideas and inventions that originated in Camden changed the world.
It was not, however, only what was being manufactured that was new and exciting. As the technology evolved, so did the need for high-quality facilities in which to record the music that people wanted to hear.
Did you know, for example, that the first recording of a full symphony orchestra was made in 1917 in a studio in Camden?
“Sound technology is like a time capsule,” Arnärson explains. And in that context, Camden was a major player.
In 1929, the Victor Talking Machine Company was bought by Radio Corporation of American (RCA), a New York company that pioneered commercial radio in the same way that Victor was at the forefront of sound recording,
Now, along with being a leader in the recorded music industry, Camden became the largest manufacturer of radio sets in the world.
“The jump – from lamps to transistors – was huge,” Arnärson said. “It was a completely different technology. It laid the groundwork for computers.”
And it kept going from there – television, military communications systems and the 1969 link between Earth and the astronauts on the moon all originated in Camden. That’s right, according to the Camden County Historical Society site, “When Neil Armstrong and Edward ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Jr., became the first human beings to set foot on the moon, they communicated with each other as well as the rest of the world through backpack radio systems built at RCA’s Camden facility.”
“Sounds of Camden” features four interactive listening stations developed by Arnärson. Visitors can sample classical and popular recordings produced at RCA Victor, voices of Camden, and recordings of and by Walt Whitman, a longtime Camden resident.
Arnärson, in addition to his job at Rutgers, is a musician and a sound guy. His first foray into recording was when he was 10 or 11 and fiddled around with his father’s reel-to-reel machine. Since then, he has played professionally and been involved in many recording sessions.
And because he has experience with both creation and documentation, he is able to understand the process and concept from both sides.
This perspective makes him all the more passionate about bringing to light the significance of Camden’s contributions.
“I would like nothing more,” said Arnärson, “than to see an entire museum dedicated to sharing this more widely.
“It is a story that needs to be told.”
“Sounds of Camden” runs through Dec. 18 at the Stedman Gallery in the Rutgers Camden Center for the Arts at Third and Pearl Streets, Camden. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extended hours on Thursdays until 8 p.m. The exhibit is free.
* Items in this exhibition were lent to RCCA by:
- Camden County Historical Museum, Camden NJ
- RCA Heritage Project Museum at Rowan University, Glassboro NJ
- State of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, Dover DE