How One Museum Is Fighting To Preserve The History Of Recorded Sound

The Phono Museum in Paris houses and preserves 250 working music machines dating back to the late 1870s. Now, it’s trying to save itself.


In recent years vinyl has made a significant comeback. What few music stores still exist are packing their shelves with records, not just used ones from classic acts, but rereleases of timeless albums and new releases from today’s hippest artists. And record player sales are on the rise; so much so that Technics, the turntable pioneer, has decided to relaunch its turntable line, which it eliminated in 2010.


While the future looks bright for records themselves, the same can’t be said for one space dedicated to the preservation of the medium’s history. In Paris, nestled in the 9th arrondissement, the Phono Museum is on the brink of extinction. A private initiative by Jalal Aro, a renowned collector and phonograph specialist who also operates La Phonogalerie, the Phono Museum houses an extensive collection that covers 140 years of sound recording, specializing in the first few decades of recorded sound with items such as Thomas Edison’s first experimental machines and the first “talking machines” that date back as early as the late 1870s.

Edison Talking doll – Poupée Parlante. 1899: The first talking doll (Thomas Edison 1889 USA), introduced the same yerar during the Paris World Exhibition.

The trouble for the museum is one of investment and municipal support. For its opening in 2014, the founders invested over $30,000 to build the volunteer-run museum, which was modified to become wheelchair accessible, and an appeal to the City of Paris for funding has been unanswered. And admissions alone aren’t enough to cover costs and repay loans. So, in a bid to avoid closure, the museum has launched a fundraising campaign to raise enough money to keep operating, and is offering some wholly unique rewards in the process.

Since the museum’s 250 machines—ranging from phonographs, gramophones, talking dolls, jukeboxes, tape recorders and electric turntables, which museum visitors can listen to and use—are all in working condition, there was an opportunity to involve supporters of the fundraising campaign in a lasting an memorable way, says Thomas Henry, a phonograph enthusiast and one of the campaign’s instigators.

“Instead of only offering free entries to the museum, which is the first thing you could think of to reward donors, we tried to make the most of the museum’s collection and its staff’s knowledge,” Henry says. “For instance, we offer donors the possibility to record their voice on tinfoil or wax cylinders, using the very first techniques in the history of recorded sound in the late 19th century. This can be a unique experience, I think.” The objective is to raise roughly $32,000 by March 17.

Tinfoil d’Eugène Ducretet (1880, France)

Other rewards capitalize on the museum’s knowledge bank and historically important location. Located in the Montmartre district, it’s right where a lot of Parisian music halls were located in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


“Another idea came to me as I was taking a walk in the museum’s neighborhood with Jalal, the museum’s founder. I remember he stopped every five minutes to tell me interesting or funny anecdotes about now disappeared phonographs stores or concert venues,” says Henry, who himself created a digital project documenting the lost record stores of Paris (Henry also created a very winsome street marketing effort for his local bar Les Chaises). “I thought: ‘This knowledge should be shared with everyone!’” So, naturally, one of the rewards is a walking tour that traces the footsteps of the first makers, distributors, and artists of the recorded sound in Paris in the 9th and 2nd arrondissements. “It’s a great way to discover Paris’s cultural and industrial heritage.”

Affiche Edison The Phonograph. USA 1904

The campaign also offers rewards such as admission, naming rights on objects, vintage posters, and phonographs, workshops, and access to themed costume parties, such as Belle Epoch or Roaring ’20s, with music of the period played on the machines of the period. Says Henry, “We also want people to have fun in the museum, because we think it’s not a place for dead objects.”

Should the museum close, Henry says some interesting forthcoming initiatives to engage the public will be shelved, such as the installation of a recording booth where visitors could press their own vinyl. Which, given the increasing ubiquity of turntables, would be a great excuse to plan a trip to Paris (not that one really needs an excuse). It would also silence a part of music history, says Henry. “The museum focuses on the first decades of recorded sound history, which are actually mostly unknown by the general public. The accessibility [of the machines] to the public makes this museum quite unique, I think.”

About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine