Go back to article: ‘Organising Sound’: how a research network might help structure an exhibition

Activities, musicking and museuming

An implication of opening-up participation in the formulation of an exhibition, as we did with the workshops, is that we should explore how this spirit of participation might be extended throughout the exhibition-delivery process. Here we can draw on other music-related projects at the Museum in addition to the workshops to discuss this theme.

The workshops included many kinds of activity: practical tasks, concerts, talks designed as provocations to discussion, and dialogic introductions. Each of these modes has potential for any future exhibition and its associated public programme. In the Music, Noise and Silence events we deliberately programmed practical exercises to ensure that these were genuinely workshops, not simply conferences by another name. These included the visit to the anechoic and reverberant chambers, the group re-enactment of a sound effects recording and the light-Theremin building workshop. The consensus of the participants was that these kinds of activities could very naturally be offered as part of the programming associated with any exhibition on this theme. It would, the Audialsense collective confirmed, even be possible to include an anechoic chamber within a travelling temporary exhibition. Such chambers can be constructed in a horseshoe-shape so as to be ‘walk-through’. Equally, the workshop concerts suggested how musical programming could encourage reflection on, and enjoyment of, exhibition themes. This could even extend to the compositions that Myles Jackson discussed, where nineteenth-century acoustical devices including metronomes and sirens have been pressed into service to make twentieth-century music (See also: Jackson, 2012). With an active participation strategy, the exhibition could include performances from a wide range of people we might otherwise think of as visitors. Finally, in terms of provocations to think differently about the show’s themes, an object used well within a display can always provoke a response, conscious or unconscious. At any rate, the workshops, performances and activities were highly suggestive of the potential for further, more public experiments in participation around the workshop project’s themes.

Participation in the workshops went beyond these programmed moments of activity. At each of the meetings, with the aim of enriching the conversation, we extended the normal convention of starting with introductions round the table, and asked each participant to bring ‘a relevant sound or thing’. As a warm-up to further provoked discussions, this technique proved effective in building the esprit de corps of the workshops, as participants played short sound excerpts, presented objects or pictures, in each case elaborating on its relevance to the discussion. We may think of this as reproducing in a self-conscious and dialogic manner the commonplace that everyone brings something of themselves to any cultural encounter. As well as suggesting an effective way of encouraging discussion and collaboration in future research workshops, this exercise is also suggestive of how we might approach an exhibition, especially one predicated on the assumption of a substantial visiting public with interest in, and therefore knowledge of, differing kinds of music. In the case of exhibition visiting, commentators think of this model of engagement where consumers bring something of themselves as ‘contributory’, in the sense that the museum visitor’s previous life experience, understanding and knowledge are taken to be the major determinants of their experience. We see in George Hein’s notion of the ‘constructivist museum’, the fundamental assumption that, as museum visitors, ‘in order to make meaning of our experience, we need to be able to connect it with what we already know’ (Hein, 1995; 1998). A compatible model for museum visiting can be extracted from Michel de Certeau’s model of cultural consumption as ‘poaching’, where audiences bring their own needs and take what they want from a cultural experience, just as a poacher steals the hare from the landlord’s field. A kind of contributory model may also be seen in deficit – as with the science capital approach, where social inequalities are understood to prevent engagement with science, which it is then the role of informal science education (including that which takes place in museums) to supply (Archer et al, 2015).

Christopher Small’s notion of ‘musicking’ – mentioned in David Toop’s provocation – can help us here with a musical route to enriching the debate about participation in museums. Small argues against the notion that the musical score is what music really is, contending that music is an activity, not a thing: ‘the fundamental nature and meaning of music lie not in…musical works at all, but in action, in what people do’. He defines a new word, ‘musicking’ to address this alternative approach to the problem, and he defines it:

To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing (Small, 1998, p 9).

Small’s list of forms of ‘musicking’ can be taken to extend to singing in the shower, cleaning concert halls, promoting, streaming, selling and buying recordings, visiting music web- and social media sites, and writing and reading music criticism or fanzines. The implication is democratic: music is not music if it doesn’t have listeners, and is impossible if not sustained by practical activities, financial support and communities of interest. In sum, music as a practice involves a huge range of activities without which it would not be ‘music’ as we currently experience it. Accordingly, we propose that a visit to a music exhibition might be seen not so much as an invitation to passively consume, but actively to musick, if we design it to be such.

Just as it helps in understanding music to think of it in terms of activity, then we may also extend the principle to museums, where the term ‘museuming’ would surely connote taking part, in any capacity, in a museum experience, whether by curating, by visiting, by talking to one’s family and friends about the experience; by more actively participating by attending events, reading catalogues, contributing to funding by buying tickets or sandwiches, donating objects, and many other activities besides.

The range of people involved in our three workshops represent, perhaps, an inner circle of ‘musickers’, in the sense that all have an active pre-existing interest in sound studies, musicology, composition or performance. The relationship of most of them to ‘museuming’ had up to this point generally been at the downstream end of museum visiting rather than at the upstream end of curating. But this was precisely the point of the exercise: we aimed to bring exhibition consumption into dialogue with production. And this goes beyond de Certeau’s point that consumption is a form of production ‘characterised by its ruses, its fragmentation...its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity [that] shows itself not in its own products...but in an art of using those imposed on it’ (De Certeau, 1984, p 31). It suggests that an exhibition on science, technology and music would be very much able to open itself up to a contributory model of exhibition, both ‘upstream’ in exhibition production and ‘downstream’ in the consumption of displays. The Science Museum’s 2011 Oramics to Electronica exhibition employed a participatory methodology that went beyond the by-now-familiar model of participation for the sake of social inclusion into cognitive aspects, exploring how lay experts understand museum subjects. There, electronic musicians and enthusiasts were invited to do the job of the curator, providing their own accounts of the history of electronic music (for a summary of participatory practice, see Boon, Van der Vaart and Price, 2014; for a later project, see Graham, 2017, pp 159–60).

The argument via musicking and museuming – that a music exhibition could belong both to an extended practice-based conception of music and to a more capacious understanding of museum practice – opens up a field of creative possibility in which some visitors’ participation could be extended to collaboration. This could address some core questions: What objects and subjects should feature in the display? Whose knowledge is encoded in the exhibits? How do we go about research, and who should do it? But this approach also suggests a warmer, more participative view of the more ‘downstream’ kind of participation by the visitor with the exhibition. It also suggests that close attention to the mis en scene of the exhibition and the experience of interaction within it will be essential.

The subjects of music and listening lend themselves to a sonic-theatrical style of exhibition. The fundamental importance of the visitors’ listening experience in such an exhibition emerged as a dominant theme throughout the network events, with a call for the creation of sonic environments within an exhibition that allow for different modes of listening. It would be very curious to produce an exhibition on sound or music that didn’t invite the audience to use their ears every bit as much as their eyes. In Oramics to Electronica, some of the participants were critical that it proved impossible to hear the displayed instruments. In that case a selection of sound films partially filled the void, but the criticism was fair. Museums tend to be predominately visual places that hear sound as nuisance (see Rich, 2017). But we should consider whether the punning application of Varèse’s ‘organised sound’ notion could be taken quite seriously, with the sounds of the exhibition being orchestrated to run in a particular sequence, that is that the soundscape of the show should be composed (for the broader context, see Schafer, 1984). It would be possible to avoid cacophony if exhibits were orchestrated to be noisy in sequence, rather than all at once. This would resonate with Sally-Jane Norman’s suggestion, in the last workshop’s summative discussion, that any exhibition should aim for ‘a more immersive or multi-sensory experience’. This could provide a social complement to the headphone-wearing individual musical exhibition experience of an exhibition such as the V&A’s David Bowie Is. The show’s soundtrack would itself veer towards being a composition, one necessarily responding to the needs of the visitors, as in Christopher Small’s sense that a score needs performers and audiences to be music. Intriguingly, a sequence of sounding exhibits would also introduce a music-like duration into the planning of the show. There would be an interaction between the choice of exhibits and the desired dwell-time within the exhibition. Within such a conception, for example, one could imagine an installation version of Angliss and Radcliffe’s The Machinery: Clog Dancing as Early Noise Music which would be part-way between event and object; it would have its own duration, like a ‘movement’ within the whole sonic composition, and it could have a physical presence that could incorporate video and sound material with, perhaps, a Lancashire cotton loom from the collection and other contextual and visual items. The duration of quoted works of music within the exhibition – for example, the limit of a 78 RPM record – would be a factor in their inclusion in the soundscape. And the sequence and draw of sounding exhibits would be understood as provocations for the audience to engage (or to refuse to engage) with the music-like durations of the show’s soundscape programming. Whatever sonic solution is found, the work of the architects and acousticians of the Audialsense collective demonstrated in the second workshop a good example of a kind of listening that is alive to a full awareness of an exhibition’s acoustic.[30] Furthermore, the live programming of concerts and events as discussed above could be envisaged as a contribution to the life of the show; promoting knowledge exchange rather than knowledge transfer, providing a less pedagogical frame than is the norm, and inviting knowledgeable contribution.

In sum, the implication is that it would be possible to (co-)produce a kind of exhibition that is not simply consumed by visitors, but one which is in a sense a combination of event programme and display.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/008