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The History of Hearing Museum

Here in the Ozarks, it seems there’s no shortage of small mom-and-pop museums. For our ongoing series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson profiles one of these unique attractions on Springfield’s north side.

[Sound: Door of the museum opening]

You may have driven past the small brown building on Commercial Street and wondered what exactly it was. The History of Hearing Museum has, in its yard, a tree that was uprooted and planted upside-down. The quirky museum is located inside of the Midwest Hearing Aid Services building and came as a result of one man’s 40-year long career treating hearing loss.

“So he has acquired a lot, a lot, of older hearing aids, a little bit of everything.”

That’s Monique Pittman, the curator of the museum and an employee of Midwest Hearing Aid Services for almost 30 years. She’s referring to Dean Brethower, the owner of that business and long-time collector of hearing aids and other hearing-related artifacts. She says that the main purpose of the museum is to show the evolution of hearing aid technology.

“So people could see the difference between the time when you used to wear batteries that were so big that you had to tie it around your legs to today when you just have a little hearing aid that’s so small that it fits on the inside of your ear.”

The two or three rooms that make up the museum are filled with old hearing aids and devices to test hearing.

Pittman says, “Ok, so first it will test your left ear…”

I put on a large pair of headphones to test my own hearing.[Sound: a click followed by tones in varying pitches and volumes]

Though my hearing seems to be alright for now, Pittman directs me to what I might have been using in, say, the 1850s. She shows me a flexible tube. On one end is an earpiece and on the other, an opening to speak into.

“You put this end in your ear and it’s what, about 36 inches long? And this piece goes on your mouth—on the other person’s mouth, and you talk through it. And it amplified the sound probably 10-15 db.”

The ear trumpet is one of the oldest devices they have. The museum also displays a wide variety of “body aids”—which were more like a type of microphone that a person would wear on a belt or in a pocket with wires running to their ears. They also have an assortment of behind-the-ear aids, hearing aids that came as a part of the thick-rimmed glasses that were popular in the 1950s, and so on. Pittman says that it is important to have a museum like this one to remind people to protect their hearing and value the technological advances that have made hearing possible for millions of people.

Pittman says, “‘Our ears are the key to communication and communication is the road to success.’”

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.