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

The multisensory roots of the museum

Although museums have been considering a transition in focus from objects to experience for nearly two decades (Weil, 1999, p 229; Hein, 2000, pp 1–16), the discipline of museology has only in recent years begun to consider multisensory interaction’s impact upon the visitor experience beyond the typical exhibition design focus on visual and textual display (Edwards et al, 2006; Levent et al, 2014). Since a museum’s practice is usually defined by the institution’s mission statement – which in turn typically defines the institution’s subject matter by highlighting audience needs (Gurian, 2005, p 54) – it is my belief that, by exhibiting sounds that museums themselves have collected, museums might be able to both engage audiences on another sensory level (thereby experimenting with the latest trends in museological theory) and better fulfil their missions of educating the public, by exposing them to the increasingly scrutinised culture of sound. This belief, while becoming increasingly popular among museum practitioners, is simultaneously a radical break from tradition and a return to the discipline’s very roots.

The concept of the museum – institutions dedicated to collecting, preserving, and displaying the objects of culture – can be dated back to the ancient world, when large-scale research institutions such as the museum within the Library of Alexandria functioned as integral parts of dedicated learning complexes. However, museums of this time tended to focus their research activities on literature more than objects, as one noted satirist of the time, Timon of Philus, once declared, ‘In populous Egypt many cloistered bookworms are fed, arguing endlessly in the chicken coop of the Muses’ (Barnes, 2004, p 62). The contemporary notion of what we now refer to as museums dates back to at least Quiccheberg’s sixteenth-century treatise on Wunderkammers and Kunstkammers, the first published attempt at defining a methodology by which museums should be organised, which acted primarily as a guide for organising the collections of elite noblemen (Quiccheberg, 2013, p 3). These privately owned collections eventually evolved into significantly larger public institutions dedicated to enriching the knowledge of (supposedly) people of all classes, commencing with the seventeenth-century opening of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (Abt, 2006, p 115). The opening of the British Museum and the Louvre in the eighteenth century ushered in the age of the so-called ‘universal museums’ – institutions that aspire to make a ‘universal’ survey of culture (Duncan and Wallach, 2012, p 50; Sloan and Burnett, 2004), attempting the impossible mission of following Quiccheberg’s treatise by assembling massive collections that are intended to categorise and display all of human knowledge (Curtis, 2012, p 74).

It is significant to note that the Wunderkammers and cabinets of curiosities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries incorporated a multisensorial approach to the interpretation of the objects in the collections (Edwards et al, 2006, p 18). These early museums aligned themselves with contemporary thinkers such as the seventeenth century scientist Robert Hooke, who suggested that proper investigation of an object included determining its:

Sonorousness or Dulness. Smell or Taste…Gravity, or Levity. Coarseness, or Fineness. Fastness, or Looseness. Stiffness, or Pliableness. Roughness, or Brittleness. Calmness, or Slipperiness.
(Howes and Classen, 2013, p 18)

Early museumgoers – chiefly made up of princes and other nobles – were subsequently allowed by Wunderkammer curators to engage with displayed objects in multisensory ways, actively partaking in not only the sights of the objects, but their smells, touch, and sounds as well (Howes and Classen, 2013, p 18).

Museum attitudes towards the multisensory began to change as they opened for public access in the nineteenth century. A gradual shift occurred within museum practice towards a particularly western, colonial, and ultimately modern visual approach to the transmission of knowledge (Edwards et al, 2006, p 18), depriving the public of the Wunderkammers’ multisensorial approach to learning. The newly public museums of the nineteenth century stopped being perceived as merely research facilities and instead became shrines to knowledge, requiring ‘quiet and passive spectators to complete [their] purpose’ (Bennett, 2013, p 16). This encouragement of silent contemplation was no doubt partially a result of public museum owners – in most cases, local governments – viewing these institutions as providers of educational and behavioural training to the lower classes who, through their exposure to museums, would become well-versed in the knowledge of the world’s culture while reinforcing their identity as submissive, self-managed loyal subjects (Bennett, 1995, p 23). Public museums also became silent during an era when the elite within the UK began to view silence as necessary to facilitate creative, technical thought and the acquisition of knowledge. Several prominent authors of the time, including Charles Dickens, penned missives about their disdain for the noises of modernity – particularly the sounds generated by immigrants who worked as organ grinders and other types of street musicians in Victorian London (Picker, 2003, pp 60–61).

Recent trends within twenty-first-century museum practice, such as the ‘participatory museum’/ ‘Museum 2.0’ movement championed by American museum professional Nina Simon, have sought to encourage visitor participation within the museum experience, allowing visitors to have an active voice within curatorial choices (Simon, 2010, p 33) and calling for museums to listen to their visitors – an overturning of this tradition of silent audiences. Museum 2.0’s innovative strategy has worked to varying degrees, with some museums opening up their curatorial choices to public vote (Gamerman, 2014), or even redesigning their entire permanent collection displays in an attempt to be more visitor-friendly (Penney, 2009, p 35). With museums willing to go to such dramatic lengths as a complete redesign in order to simply be perceived as ‘listening to audiences’, it becomes easier to understand why writers such as Brian O’Doherty have been declaring that museums are in a state of crisis since at least the advent of Modernism (O’Doherty, 1972).

As museums in the twenty-first century have begun grappling with new methods by which to engage with their audiences, philosophers and theorists have also begun grappling with new notions of something central to museums: objects. The emergence of object-oriented ontology within contemporary philosophy has radically redefined the relationship between objects and humans, in the process expanding the definition of objects to include colossal things like entire galaxies, or ephemeral things like ideas. As my work involves redefining sound as an object, it would appear that doing so within object-oriented ontology’s broader scope might be a temptation; however, to do so would imply an agreement with OOO’s ‘refus[al] to treat objects as constructions of humans’ (Bryant, 2011, p 18). It is my belief that this democratisation of objects and humans, while philosophically compelling, is fundamentally incompatible with the essence of museum practice as it exists today, a discipline based entirely upon humanity’s desire to collect, categorise and display objects for the education and entertainment of humanity. Perhaps object-oriented ontology may become the basis for a future museum practice, but for now even radically progressive attempts to move museum practice beyond the traditional power structures between museums, objects and visitors such as the afore-mentioned Museum 2.0 movement still rely upon the belief that objects exist at the behest of humanity. Subsequently, I feel compelled to acknowledge the existence of object-oriented ontology while simultaneously asserting that, for the time being at least, I find it most useful outside the realm of museum practice for the time being.

In recent years, museums have found themselves increasingly under the scrutiny of sound artists, especially field recordists. My own artistic research into the sonic experience of museums generates detailed sound maps of museum spaces. I visit each mapped museum as any other visitor would, conducting my work unannounced during regular public hours, on view but essentially in secret, recording the sounds that ‘naturally’ occur within museum spaces. These recordings unravel the stereotypical notion of a ‘silent’ museum (Kannenberg, 2016). Other museum-based recording projects, such as sound artist residencies like Aleks Kolkowski’s work at the Science Museum in London (personal communication, 11 December 2014) and Matt Parker’s ‘Imitation Archive’ at Bletchley Park (Parker, 2016) have involved large-scale recording sessions of the sounds generated by objects that are held within a museum’s physical object collections – projects that have accomplished important work in generating sonic material for future display opportunities.

To further explore the act of listening to sounds within a museum context, I have developed an experimental curatorial practice, establishing an institution – The Museum of Portable Sound – whose ‘galleries’ display digital audio files of my own field recordings of museums (as well as a broad range of other examples of sonic culture) on a single mobile phone (see Figure 2); the museum, although digital in nature, is not distributed online, but rather presented on an individual basis to visitors who make an appointment to listen to the museum along with me (Gray, 2017). The wide-reaching results of this curatorial experiment, to be published in the future, are at this point beyond the scope of the present article. However, my own thinking towards the project’s central conceit – that sounds can be collected and exhibited as objects of culture – has led to this article’s proposal for a new definition of the term ‘sound object’.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of Museum of Portable Sound visitor materials including a mug, gallery guide, phone app, map and brochure

Materials provided to visitors of the Museum of Portable Sound, 2017

Visitors are provided with (clockwise from left) a printed Gallery Guide containing didactic texts and object labels; a mini-catalogue of the Museum’s current temporary exhibition; a printed map of the Museum’s permanent collection (see Figure 1); and the Museum itself: an iPhone 4s containing the audio files, organised into 21 themed galleries.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/002