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

Possibilities for a museological sound object within museum practice

To hopefully make this concept clearer, consider the following theoretical situations where my proposed museological sound object is applied to objects in museums that deal with material culture

•    An antique cuckoo clock in a museum’s collection is an object; the sound made by that cuckoo clock would be a sound object.

•    An LP record – say, for example, the Folkways Records release of field recordist Tony Schwartz’s New York 19 from 1954 – held by a museum is an object. The sound heard when playing that LP on a phonograph would be a sound object.

•    A spool of magnetic tape containing a recording held in a museum’s archives is an object; the sound produced by playing that tape – what is heard – would be a sound object.

•    A digital field recording of an interview captured as part of an oral history project – the computer-readable data – is an object; the sonic event that is perceived by a listener when that data is translated by the appropriate software and transmitted over a speaker system would be a sound object.

•    A performance such as the one mentioned in Contemporary Sound Art Curation above – Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’, acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015 – would break down like this: the written score, the written agreement made with Lucier, and the captured video of Lucier performing the piece that were acquired by MoMA are objects; the sounds generated within the act of performance (i.e. the sound of future performances of the score, as well as the sound heard in the recording of Lucier’s own performance video) would be sound objects.

Within contemporary museum collection archival work, the museological sound object could be catalogued as a component of what is referred to within museum database XML workflows as an information object: ‘a digital item or group of items, regardless of type or format, that can be addressed or manipulated as a single object by a computer’ (Gilliland, 2008, p 2). A sound object, then, would be tracked by its sound object record, part of the information object for a specific collection item. For example, the information object for a cuckoo clock would contain a record identifying the sonic event made by the sounding of the cuckoo clock, as well as a record for any recordings of that sounding that the museum holds in its collection.

The sonic event (the ‘sound object’) would then be treated as an independent object that can be displayed – by operating the cuckoo clock within a museum’s exhibition space – or represented by an audio recording of the sound generated by the cuckoo clock. The representation (i.e. recording) of a sound would be considered another object and would be preserved accordingly; the sonic event created by the perception of the sound represented by the recording recreates the original sound object.

Let’s look at some examples of how the sound object would be identified within an information object:

Example 1: sound object linked to physical object


1.    A cuckoo clock is an object (A).

2.    The sonic event generated by the operation of the cuckoo clock would be its corresponding sound object (B), to be added to the information object of the cuckoo clock.

3.    If the clock is too fragile to play its sound on a regular basis while on display without causing irreparable damage to the clock, a digital recording (C) of its sound could then be made. This recording would then be tracked as an additional data record within the cuckoo clock’s information object, linking the recording to the clock and the sound of the clock. The recording/representation (C) could then be used to manifest the sound object (B) within an exhibition context; in this way, the recording object becomes a sort of echo of the original object – a thing with a database record that, when properly decoded, generates the sound object. The sound object – i.e. the sonic event – could be displayed independently of its original source object within a gallery, online, or other display context.

In the above case, the sound object is both a part of and independent from the source object. This concept could also be applied to recordings acquired by a museum archive.

Example 2: sound object derived from archival recorded media


1.    A reel-to-reel tape recording of early twentieth-century American comedy duo Abbott and Costello’s first radio performance of Who’s On First? is an object (A).

2.    The sound event generated when that tape is played would become its corresponding sound object (B), and would be noted within the tape’s information object.

3.    A digital recording (C) of the original tape can be made for exhibition purposes, which is also noted within the tape’s information object.

Example 3: digital recording submitted by visitors to museum’s website/mobile app


1.    A museum sets up a website or mobile app inviting visitors to upload their own sound recordings (let’s say the museum is including this as part of a larger exhibition on birds). A digital recording of birdsong uploaded to the museum’s website is an object (A).

2.    The sound event generated when the digital recording is played could become its corresponding sound object (B), and is noted within the digital recording’s information object.

These are, of course, only three very basic possibilities for the integration of sound objects into museum collections. Further study and practice will no doubt need to be conducted in order to develop a robust taxonomy with which museums can begin to describe the integration of sound objects within their other collections.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/009