Go back to article: Towards a more sonically inclusive museum practice: a new definition of the ‘sound object’


By acknowledging sonic events as both a component of another object and an independent object itself, I have been able to display audio recordings in a way that (at least according to the vast majority of feedback from visitors to The Museum of Portable Sound) echoes the experience of visiting a traditional object-based institution, even though my own museum is a digital construct free of architectural space. These museological sound objects, when considered in the anthropological sense as objects of culture, have somehow managed to feel akin to traditional museum objects to my museum’s audience, and appear to also be capable of telling stories similar to those told by physical objects in traditional museums. While my museum’s exhibition strategy is small in scale and intended for personal interaction between museum visitors and the museum staff, I believe that if museum practitioners truly strive to engage with visitors beyond just the visual and textual, new strategies of exhibition display – and new types of objects to be displayed – will need to be established.

Just as a museum’s collection practices are often influenced by the language of their institutional mission statement, they are also influenced by the language of museology. Since Quiccheberg’s treatise, museums have been influenced by the language of organisation and categorisation – the language of objects. Since the fifteenth century, when the emerging culture of the connoisseur saw artists begin to assert their works as deserving of special attention within the realms of taste, the discipline of western art history has conceptually conflated the unique performance event of a painting or sculpture with its status as an object – perhaps setting a precedent for contemporary museology to define sounds (which are currently accepted as events by philosophers and sound theorists) as objects within their discipline.

If museums are ever to push beyond the realm of the visual into the multisensory, the language of objects will most likely need to expand to accommodate it. I believe that my own re-definition of the ‘sound object’ within the context of my own museum practice could, with further development, potentially serve as a beginning for this process of accommodation and integration. It is my hope that some day museological sound objects of many types – not only music, and not only pieces of ‘sound art’ – may begin to find a place within the stories told by all museums of material culture, as institutions that are currently dedicated to the tangible begin to expand their collections to include more ‘objects’ of intangible cultural heritage.

Editor’s note

This article was joint winner of the Science Museum Group Journal writing prize, 2016/17.


I would like to thank Dr Meri Kytö, Dr Lucy Steeds, Professor David Toop, Ms Lara Torres and Dr John Wynne for their support and feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. I also thank the peer reviewers for their generous and helpful feedback as well.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/010