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


This article has traced sound as it has echoed through approaches to displaying the sound recording and reproduction collection at the Science Museum from the 1920s to the 1970s. Specifically, this article has teased out the characteristic failure of sound to provide an appropriate and meaningful medium for the interpretation of acoustic objects. It is a failure that, as this article has argued, derives from the unwillingness of sound to conform to visual regimes of governing knowledge and conduct in the museum. The first moment, which explored scheduled demonstrations of the electric gramophone in the 1920s and again in the immediate post-war years, highlighted attempts to compartmentalise sound and to govern listening conducts through the technologies of the lecture theatre, which in turn reproduced the figure of the detached, silent and static observer as that fitting for a national museum.

The second moment, which looked at the Radio-Guided Tour installed at the Science Museum in the 1960s, similarly represented attempts to harness sound’s instructive potential whilst compartmentalising sound and sonic conduct so as to maintain the museum’s characteristic quietude. Failure here corresponded to blatant technological failures, but also the belief of some staff that sound represented a transgression of Museum practice into the realm of entertainment as embodied in the figure of the listener, ear pressed to hand-held receiver, which represented an intrusion of popular culture into a serious space for learning. The third and final moment marked an attempt at freeing sound from the constraints of the visual via the technologies of sound installation. The attic space of The Trumpet Shall Sound exhibition allowed (Victor) Kenneth Chew, to exhibit a set of sounds as objects which provided a visual backdrop to a set of foreground sonic excerpts. That reviews criticised the exhibition due to the poor visibility of objects suggests that sound failed as an effective carrier of meaning due to a cleaving, on behalf of some visitors, to visual modes of navigating and knowing the Museum.

Thinking historically, this article has retrieved a body of knowledge and practical expertise, giving new purpose to past experience and experimentation as resources for those thinking about acoustics as both medium and as object for museum display. In moments of negotiation on the place of sound and sonic conduct at the Science Museum, this article has seen reflections on the practice of putting acoustics on display at their most articulate. Exploring the traces of sound experimentation at the Science Museum, this article has provided a corrective to museum studies literature which has regarded acoustic modes of display as something new associated with museum practice emerging from the sensory turn in the humanities. This is surprising given the place of acoustic exhibits in the histories of a wide range of museums at local and national scales. This article has demonstrated how the custodians and curators of acoustics collections offer a potentially rich repository of ideas, of both successes and failures, which can support modern museum practitioners in developing a vocabulary for dealing with sound in the museum, a vocabulary attentive to the possibilities of sound to reorganise the dissemination of information in the museum in new, critical and creative ways.


The author would like to thank the AHRC for funding the research on which this article is based. Thanks to James Mansell and Tim Boon for their on-going encouragement and valuable feedback as the project and writing progressed. Thanks also to John Liffen for sharing his inimitable knowledge of the acoustics collection during the author’s many visits to the Science Museum’s archive and store, and to three anonymous reviewers for their generous and constructive comments.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170706/006