Go back to article: ‘A Chamber of Noise Horrors’: sound, technology and the museum


Sound is part of the social and material history of technology. Recovering the sound of a machine, however, is not enough to understand the context of how technology was heard in the context of its first use. Museums of science and technology can recover this history, but as the case of the 1935 Noise Abatement Exhibition shows, they might also have been implicated in creating ways of hearing technology in the first place. The Anti-Noise League understood that to wage its campaign against ‘needless noise’ it needed to attune people to an anti-noise way of hearing. An exhibition at a major national museum such as the Science Museum was a golden opportunity to do so. What the Anti-Noise League understood only too well, museum theorists and practitioners perhaps need to consider afresh.  

The Science Museum’s 1935 Noise Abatement Exhibition sought to attune the auditory attention of its visitors, to cultivate listeners, by making them aware of what and how they heard. It encouraged a way of hearing that cast technological noise as unhealthy and uncivilized, but, more than that, promoted quietness and auditory isolation as norms for social life. Truly noisy phenomena were not the main auditory features of the exhibition and were depicted visually rather than auditorily, as in the case of the jet engine or the unsilenced pneumatic drill shown on the mock thermometer in Figure 3. These were the ‘noise horrors’ described by Lord Elton. Ultimately, his and the Anti-Noise League’s concern in the exhibition was not so much with educating visitors to hear these horrifying sounds, but rather in encouraging them to reconsider the need for, as well as the acoustic qualities of, quietness. Elton imagined a visitor leaving the exhibition with the confidence, when confronted by a friend ‘speaking too loudly’, at an unnecessary ‘60 phons’, to say, ‘“Please bring your voice down to about 20 phons”.’ He added that ‘Most of us speak louder than is necessary, and louder than we did a few years ago, for we are so accustomed to shouting against the noises that surround us in restaurants, factories, and shops that we take the habit to our homes’.[17] The exhibition was thus in fact a chamber of potential noise horrors; the noises presented there were already in the process of being reshaped to conform to the middle-class ideal of quiet promoted by the Anti-Noise League. Visitors heard not a regular pneumatic drill, but rather a silenced one. The demonstration house described above invited visitors to hear themselves and their own actions within the dynamic process of transformation from noisiness to quietness. They would step out into the world, it was hoped, with a new appreciation for quiet and with a greater appreciation of one’s own responsibility to keep the peace. The exhibition thus actively disciplined its visitors as auditory subjects, offering an embodied education in the superior sonic values of the ‘quiet’ classes and their appreciation for higher standards of acoustic design. The presentation of sound at the exhibition was thus socially active: its planners understood that social ideals could enter into acoustics, for example in the demonstration house.

The exhibition presented quietness as a rational aim of scientific and technological innovation for the purposes of lending objectivity to the cause of noise abatement, but this cause was an auditory concretisation of class and gender hierarchy as much as it was a public health campaign. Sound studies scholarship shows that this exhibition case study is the norm rather than the exception where the cultural and social history of sound is concerned: sound is no less socially-interested than vision, no less a useful resource for the creation of truth effects, social hierarchy and cultural control. These are lessons for the museum curator to absorb. In creating exhibitions of or with sound, we must begin with critical awareness of sound’s place within the contested terrain of history rather than just a new technique for enlivening it.



The author wishes to thank Tim Boon, Aleksander Kolkowski, John Liffen and Jennifer Rich, all of whose support was invaluable in the researching of this article.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170704/005