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

The Radio-Guided Tour

In 1958, the arrival of a new Assistant Keeper of Physics prompted a second major reassessment of the acoustics collection and with it further meditations on the role of sound in displaying the acoustics collection. Almost immediately after his employment by the Science Museum, (Victor) Kenneth Chew set about devising a new scheme for the development of the acoustics collection. Chew’s new tenure coincided with a rapid period of modernisation at the Science Museum, particularly in the arts of museum display. For the first time collections had become too large to be housed on the Museum floor in their entirety, leaving keepers with the need to make choices regarding which instruments and objects to display and which to place in storage out of public view. As Chew pondered ways to develop and display the acoustics collection in 1958, a handful of gallery spaces in the Museum were being transformed by new approaches in the arts of visual display. The new Electric Power and Iron and Steel galleries, for example, exemplified new narrative-based approaches, replacing formal grid-like arrangements of glass and mahogany showcases with an exhibition landscape based upon the principles of contrast in scale, texture and colour. Perceiving himself ‘not yet sufficiently acquainted with contemporary methods of display’ and believing that he did not possess the talent for visual display shown by his colleagues, Chew suggested the recruitment of an external artist to execute his plans. His proposal was promptly rejected and Chew was tasked with developing a new scheme for displaying the sound recording and reproduction collection alone. The result was an exhibition scheme attentive to both sight and sound, which demonstrated a curatorial imagination as creative and ambitious as that of his Science Museum contemporaries.

Figure 2

Black and white photograph from the nineteen fifties of Parliamentary Secretary Richard Thompson giving a speech at the opening ceremony of the radio guided tour

Parliamentary Secretary Richard Thompson giving a speech at the opening ceremony of the Radio-Ruided Rour. In the background is an older kind of museum display with grid-like configurations of glass and mahogany showcases. Out of shot is the Iron and Steel Gallery which represented the new exhibition landscape.

Figure 3

Artists impression of the iron and steel gallery constructed in the nineteen fifties at the Science Museum London

Illustration by exhibition designer V Rotter depicting plans for the Iron and Steel Gallery

A key component of Chew’s proposal for the development of the acoustics section was a so-called ‘audition room’, a small soundproof space for the demonstration of both modern and historic examples of sound recording and reproduction technology.[19] According to its plans, Chew’s audition room would house approximately twenty listeners. Its external walls would be made of glass to allow the instruments to be seen even when not in use. For those inside the audition room, a curtain would screen off the outside world, conjuring an intimate space redolent of the private listening spaces of the home. The instruments and accompanying sounds would together make up a timeline of the history of sound recording and reproduction, thereby mobilising an auditory taxonomy which would cultivate the expert ear through direct contrast and comparison of sounds and sound technology. Further, the design of the room – a dedicated space for listening, as well as for looking – actively encouraged visitors to engage with sounds and music emotionally, hinting at the phonograph and gramophone’s capacity for entertainment. Lack of funds, and the possible infringement of Museum policy, which discouraged industry sponsorship whether monetary or in the form of object loans, meant the audition room never made it beyond the planning stage and it would be several years before Chew would be given the opportunity of developing a sound installation based upon similar principles.

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of Science Museum visitors experiencing an early radio guided tour

Visitors tuning in to the Radio-Guided Tour commentary for the Iron and Steel Gallery in 1960

In 1960, the Science Museum – taking advantage of a state-sponsored experiment into the use of acoustic guidance in national museums and galleries – introduced a new technology for audio interpretation known as the Radio-Guided Tour. The experiment had initially been proposed by the Ministry of Works, which promised to extend the scheme to other publicly owned national museums, subject to successful trials. With an in-house workshop ready to respond to technical failures and as an experiment into applied science in its own right, the Science Museum was the obvious host for the Radio-Guided Tour experiment. The technology comprised of a miniature radio station which broadcast a taped commentary via a loop induction system to a series of hand-held radio receivers. The radio receivers, known colloquially as ‘lorgnettes’, were made available for hire at the Museum’s bookstall at a cost of one shilling and a returnable deposit of ten shillings (see Figure 5). The first exhibition space to host the scheme was the recently opened Iron and Steel Gallery, followed by Electric Power, Sailing Ships and the Acoustics Gallery just three months later. The Radio-Guided Tour for Iron and Steel steered listeners through a new exhibition landscape – the product of a substantial grant from industry – and to a series of star objects that together retold the history of iron and steel from prehistory to present.[20] The Radio-Guided Tour for Electric Power took the form of a mock-guided tour with cast comprising of Museum Assistant John Smart playing fictional museum guide and real-life Guide Lecturer, John van Riemsdijk, and his wife playing the roles of ordinary visitors. In Sailing Ships, the Radio-Guided Tour offered a narrative thread connecting objects contained in the glass showcases, constrained within older, rigid and rectilinear techniques of museum display. For Acoustics, the utility of the Radio-Guided Tour was perhaps most obvious, enabling listeners to hear from a small selection of acoustic instruments on display.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a nineteen fifties radio guided tour receiver

The Multitone Lorgnette Radio-Receiver which is now in storage at Blythe House

For Chew, static and soundless modes of displaying the acoustics collection failed to communicate the technological and cultural significance of individual acoustic objects. Reviewing the possibilities of acoustic guidance in 1964, Chew remarked how the Museum visitor ‘cannot properly appreciate the Pyrophone, the Musical Glasses, the Bell-Ringing Machine and the Edison Tinfoil Phonograph unless they are given the opportunity of hearing what they sound like’.[21] Echoing the earlier acoustic demonstrations of the electric gramophone in the soundproof spaces of the new lecture theatre, the Radio-Guided Tour aimed at cultivating the expert ear by combining the practices of looking and listening. Like Chew’s audition room, too, the Radio-Guided Tour carved out a dedicated space for listening between handset and ear so as to maintain the relative quietude of the Museum. The technology allowed Chew to harness both the instructive potential of sound as an index of technological particularity and the performative potential of sound as a carrier of cultural meaning and significance whilst, in principle at least, avoiding its spillage into other parts of the Museum. In reality the four commentaries, which were broadcast on four different frequencies, tended to clash with one another. Snippets of the commentary for Iron and Steel, for example, could occasionally be heard in Sailing Ships. Furthermore, the rise of portable tape players and the on-going acquisition of objects for the collection, meant that the Radio-Guided Tours quickly became obsolete. Persistent technological failures and the tendency of visitors, whether by accident or by design, to steal their radio receiver added further weight to arguments which called for the removal the Radio-Guided Tours from all four galleries just four years after their launch.

In 1964, after the Acoustics Gallery once again fell silent, Chew paused to reflect on the future of acoustic guidance across the whole Museum. He questioned the usefulness of the scheme as a tool for instruction and doubted whether the Radio-Guided Tour did anything more than simply demonstrate that the Museum was ‘moving with the times’.[22] The Museum’s Director, David Follett, also questioned the appropriateness of the scheme within a national museum:

The fundamental question is whether these systems are really useful and genuinely appreciated by the visitor, or whether they are really no more than gimmicks which give a spurious aim of modernity, or ‘being with it’.[23]

These comments highlight the contested nature of sound in the Museum, as well as the place of certain sound technologies that point towards popular listening cultures outside the Museum. Follett’s comments also point towards the kind of conduct deemed fitting for a national museum and the anxiety felt by some staff concerning the potential of sound to disrupt the established visual methods through which knowledge and visitor conduct is governed. Like the demonstration of the electric gramophone, the Radio-Guided Tour experiment highlights both the practicalities and politics of using sound in the process of putting acoustics on display. Both represent attempts to ask sound to conform to visual methods and technologies through the compartmentalisation of sound and listening practice. The third and final encounter with acoustic display represents a conscious disruption of the established economies of seeing at the Science Museum. It marks an experiment into the possibilities of sound as a sense-making tool freed from visual regimes that govern of knowledge and conduct in the museum.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170706/004