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

Sound and the museum

Museums are increasingly seeking ways to engage their visitors through sound as part of a wider trend toward what Bubaris (2014) has termed the new ‘experience’ economy in heritage practice. This is not usually an ‘abstract or theoretical concern’ with experience, but refers, rather, to ‘well-designed means for attracting cultural consumers by catering to their needs in a stimulating environment of sought-after memorable events’ (Bubaris, 2014, p 393). Writing in the Museums Journal, Sharp (2013) further suggests that sound effects in museums are primarily a ‘cost-effective means of engaging visitors’, providing ‘an immersive experience’ to enhance or replace the traditional object-plus-text exhibition format. Museum scholars have nevertheless welcomed this turn to sound as a necessary corrective to the ‘pervasive and long-standing belief that museums are places of silence’ (Bubaris, 2014, p 391). In museums, according to Bubaris, ‘a meaningful sound environment’ can now rightfully become a ‘valuable practice of knowledge,’ drawing us into embodied connection with artefacts and their stories (Bubaris, 2014, p 391–392). Scholarly celebrations of the possibilities of museum sound tend to focus on the argument that sound may facilitate the multiplication of narrative and interpretation in exhibitions. Bubaris argues that ‘The sonic culture of silence is intertwined with the communicative model of transmitting precisely defined cultural information – the cultural equivalent of a metaphysical presence speaking the truth as the ultimate source of knowledge’, whereas a sound-rich exhibition is better suited to ‘an open and pluralistic museum’ where ‘multiple interpretations’ are possible (p 400). Boon (2014), similarly, hopes that sound, and musical sound in particular, will allow for the opening up of available meanings and experiences in the space of science museums, confounding misplaced confidence in ‘the precise clarity of science communication’. Boon argues that music opens ‘inexplicit territories of meaning’ for visitors, who may in turn ‘poach’, in Michel de Certeau’s sense, what they need from an exhibition, becoming ‘secondary producers’, to use de Certeau’s language, or ‘co-producers’, to borrow Helen Graham’s (2016). There is evidence to suggest that sound may successfully facilitate plurality and multiplicity in museum display where controversial and contested historical topics are concerned. Hutchison and Collins (2009) argue that sound installation provides opportunities to create the ‘polyphonic’ and ‘dialogic’ exhibitions necessary to account for multiple perspectives on migration history, for example, and point to the value of oral history recordings as a way of presenting multiple pasts and drawing visitors into an empathetic relationship with personal testimony. Binter (2014) advocates sound as a means of reframing the history of colonial encounter in ethnographic museums. According to Binter, contextual oral history audio used alongside exhibits allows the curator to challenge both ‘conventional occularcentric forms of display’ (p 343) and the structures of power inherent in imperial collecting.

What unites the existing literature on museum sound is thus a positive outlook on the sonic in which vision is associated with the old structures of authority and sound with an emancipatory opening of the museum to personal experience and to formally excluded perspectives. While Boon (2014) is right to lay down the challenge that ‘Most museums devote much thought to how they look and virtually none to how they sound’, my argument is that in thinking through museum sound we should be as critical about what sound does as we have come to be about what vision and the visual field can do. We should pause to question whether sound automatically offers a more democratic and pluralistic way of doing exhibitions, and whether it really is as straightforward a way around the ‘visual hegemony’ and ‘occularcentrism’ of western modernity as some have suggested. In cases such as those mentioned by Hutchison and Colins and by Binter, curators were already thinking critically about the politics of heritage and display, but where this is not the case, it may be all too easy for sound’s routine involvement in hegemonic power – for sound is no less implicated in power than vision – to be reproduced in the museum or heritage space.

Tourle’s critique (2017) of the British Library/National Trust project Sounds of Our Shores offers a cautionary tale and a necessary corrective to unqualified enthusiasm about sound in museum practice. Sounds of Our Shores ‘is a community-led, interactive soundmap’ created in the summer of 2015. It was crowd-sourced by users who were asked to ‘upload their favourite seaside sounds and help build a permanent digital resource of UK coastal recordings’ (British Library). The project was intended to promote attentive listening as a means of generating appreciation of ‘the beauty and diversity of the entire UK coast’ (National Trust). Tourle argues that despite taking the appearance of an open and democratic exercise in crowd-sourcing sonic heritage, the Sounds of Our Shores project in fact directed its users in a particular ‘mode of listening’ (p 238). He argues that in its emphasis on natural beauty, the promotion of the project to contributors explicitly situated the listening mode as touristic. The project ‘discursively privileged and materially preselected sounds that reproduce the coast as a site of leisure and natural beauty’ (p 243). Tourle points out that the conceptualisation of the coastline as natural resource, generated by the predominant acoustic ecology logic in sonic heritage practice, diverted attention away from coastal areas as places where working-class communities ‘live, work and struggle’ (p 242) and, more unfortunately still, served to occlude the role of the British coast as an imaginative frontier and site of noisy protest during the ‘migrant crisis’ that coincided with the collecting phase of the Sounds of Our Shores project. Tourle concludes that even as the project ‘opened up the sonic environment to its audiences as a new field of experience’, its setup ‘worked to discipline public listening, aestheticising and domesticating the sonic, wresting from it the power to disrupt hegemonic narratives of nation’ (p 244). Sure enough, in a subsequent poll run by the National Trust to find ‘the UK’s favourite coastal sound’, the ‘sound of gentle waves breaking on the beach’ came out on top (National Trust). Tourle’s theorisation of socially-shaped modes of listening, a concept he borrows from sound studies and critical race theorist Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (2010), and his investigation of the ‘boundaries of acceptable listening’ operating in heritage practice (p 244), open the critical terrain which should in my opinion be necessary to those wishing to work with sound in museums. The Sounds of Our Shores project did not set out to silence the noise of protest, quotidian drudgery or cries for help, but nevertheless did so by framing the sonically valuable in such a way as to foreground particular national and class modes of listening.

Ironically, perhaps, the museum studies literature on ‘ways of seeing’ further maps out the kind of critical attention to sound that I wish to make a case for here. Theorists of the senses argue that the encounter between a visual object and a seer must be socially shaped to be made meaningful. Howes and Classen (2014) argue that ‘Perception is informed not only by the personal meaning a particular sensation has for us, but also by the social values it carries’ (p 1). Museum theorists such as Bennett (2011) argue that museums shape visual perception in the interests of certain fields of visual meaning at the expense of others. Bennett points to the ways in which nineteenth-century museums, for example, promoted Darwinistic ways of seeing nature. The effect described by Bennett was achieved in the museum by explainers and textual information, but also by the visual logics of collecting and display. Rees Leahy (2014) notes that in attempting to re-stage historical art exhibitions, curators must appreciate the importance of the ‘period eye’, a particular way of encountering visual imagery specific to an historical period, or, to put it another way, ‘the cultural-constructedness of vision’, or a ‘set of viewing norms’ (p 286) which both artists and gallery-goers understood at the time of an original exhibition, but which no longer translate straightforwardly into our changed ways of seeing. Such theories of the historical shaping of sight are now widely accepted and understood, but are not routinely applied to sound.

Yet our perception of sound is also shaped socially. We hear historically. Sound is not intrinsically multiple, dialogic or pluralistic, but may be presented as such in a museum ‘way of hearing’. Museums are, in fact, powerful shapers of our social ways of encountering sound because they have the authority and opportunity to direct sonic behaviour and perceptual attention. The expected norm of quietly contemplating an art work was actively produced by those who sought to use the art gallery as a tool of civilization (Hill, 2005). Bubaris (2014) notes that ‘It is no coincidence that sound is more acceptable in museums that do not have the ‘aura’ of high culture, for example, in science centres and temporary exhibitions, rather than in the permanent collections of art museums’ (p 392). This same process was at work in the way that concert hall audiences were enculturated into certain ways of behaving around symphonic music, sitting silently during and even between movements and clapping at the appropriate time. Johnson (1995), Weber (1975) and others have pointed to these sonic codes of conduct, which rarefied ‘absolute music’, as fundamental to the coming into being of middle-class identity and the rise of notions of civility in the nineteenth century. Quiet, in this context, became loaded with class connotations, a consequence of civilization rather than an acoustic category. It operated, powerfully, in the class-bound social imaginary of early twentieth-century Britain, as the next section of this article will show. If, as Rich suggests (this issue), we have overlooked the extent to which sound has historically featured in museums, then we must certainly have been inattentive to the extent to which museums, perhaps no less than concert halls, organised and shaped historical, class-bound, or otherwise socially-interested, ways of hearing. What is audible or otherwise, and what is auditorily welcomed or rejected, is no less of an historical or political matter than what the visual field does or does not admit as knowable and true. We must, therefore, do more to take account of museum ways of hearing.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170704/002