Go back to article: Acoustics on display: collecting and curating sound at the Science Museum

A gramophone demonstration

In March 1928, in the weeks leading up to the Royal opening of the East Block, the electric gramophone was mounted onto a platform overlooking the cavernous hall of the Museum’s new building. An accompanying amplifier and set of loud speakers, in addition to the prominent if precarious position of the gramophone, meant that the sound demonstration would be audible to visitors across the Museum. The demonstration was featured at the opening and thereafter as part of the daily lecture service, when at scheduled intervals the electric gramophone transformed the usually silent spaces of the Museum (Follett, 1978).[11] These were popular demonstrations with visitors coming to the Science Museum especially to tune-in to the popular overtures, symphonies and concertos, played on records also supplied by the Gramophone Company (Follett, 1978).[12] [13] Quiet contemplation of these records was not, however, the position taken by all visitors all of the time.

An order issued in 1929 hinted at the way in which sound demonstrations elicited a kind of behaviour potentially out of place at the Science Museum:

In the event of the conduct of visitors becoming unruly in the vicinity of the gramophone and wireless demonstrations, the attendant in charge will terminate the demonstration at once. (Follett, 1978, p 153)

The order represents an unintended consequence of the gramophone demonstration, which was to disrupt the codes of conduct associated with the spaces of a national museum. The nature of visitors’ ‘unruly’ behaviour is unclear, though the very existence of the order suggests that gramophone sounds might have been appreciated by visitors less for their capacity for instruction and more for their associations with popular and collective forms of entertainment. The unruly listening body – potentially mobile, potentially vocal – threatened to unmoor the silent and detached observing body governed by mundane museum technologies like the glass and mahogany showcase and the written object label.

The daily demonstration of the electric gramophone continued throughout the interwar years. The Gramophone Company visited the Museum regularly to service the demonstration machines, replacing older machines with newer models in order to showcase the most recent developments in industry.[14] Yet Museum staff continued to highlight the disruption caused by the demonstrations, which occasionally gave rise to unruly behaviour and tended to annoy visitors in adjacent sections.[15]

One solution to was to play around with the positioning of speakers in order to combat the high level of reverberation caused by the architectural acoustics of the galleries.[16] Another was to remove the demonstrations entirely and to relocate them to a purposefully built soundproof room. Following the re-opening of the Museum after the Second World War, the demonstrations of the electric gramophone were re-located to the lecture theatre so that, according to the annual report of 1950, ‘visitors may listen in comfort under the best conditions possible in the museum’.[17] Indeed, the soundproof space of the lecture theatre helped retain the sonic particularities associated with electric gramophone technology, and prevented sound from spilling into spaces for which it was not meant. But it also provided a technique for developing a kind of listening conduct fit for purpose in the modern museum. The lecture theatre offered a formal space for attentive listening where listeners could see the source of sound before them from the comfort of their seats, which themselves held bodies firmly in place. This combination of looking and listening from a distance offered an auditory equivalent, therefore, to the Museum’s established economies of seeing, embodied through technologies like the glass and mahogany showcase. The lecture theatre represented a technology for containing sound and for disciplining conduct, thereby reinstating the disciplined and detached observing body fitting for a national museum.

In 1952, the ‘Electric Gramophone Recitals’ were brought to a close. According to the Science Museum’s annual reports, the demonstrations declined in popularity with many visitors now attuned to modern gramophone sounds through their everyday domestic listening practices. Furthermore, museum assistants, already in short supply, were required elsewhere for the daily demonstrations of the recently renovated auxetophone, pyrophone and tinfoil phonograph.[18] Persistent, however, was a belief in the instructive potential of the auditory in displaying the sound recording and reproduction collection, which continued to expand to keep pace with the rapid developments in acoustic technology characteristic of the 1950s and 60s. As sound was enrolled once more as part of a state-sponsored experiment into acoustic guidance in the 1960s, staff would again encounter the tension between possibilities of sound for acoustic display and the role of sound, and sound citizenship, in shaping the cultural politics of the Science Museum.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170706/003