07/03/2016, by CLAS

Acoustics on Display

Sound plays an important part in the museum-going experience. The relative silence of some museums conjures an atmosphere fit for quiet contemplation. Conversely a noisy environment has the potential to interrupt the channels of communication between the museum – its experts and curators – and the museum-going public. Sound is regularly used in the museum as a means of organising visitors, with audio guides shaping journeys though exhibition spaces, and tannoy systems announcing news of special events, opening and closing hours, of lost property or lost children. Sound is, therefore, a key component of how we experience, recognise, and how we know the museum.

Sound has rarely, however, been an explicit concern for those responsible for the design of the museum, its exhibitions and displays. The predominance of glass showcases, pictures, dioramas, static objects and written labels in museums both past and present highlights a privileging of the visual over the auditory, of looking over listening. Yet what happens when the subject matter – the very content of the museum display – concerns sound and the exhibition of sound and sound technology? What happens when sound, and sound technology, requires interpretation by an expert curator well versed in the arts of visual display but not necessarily in the arts of displaying the auditory?

These are the kinds of questions with which I am currently grappling as part of my role as Cultural Engagement Fellow on the AHRC funded project ‘Acoustics on Display: Collecting and Curating Sound at the Science Museum’. As the title suggests ‘Acoustics on Display’ focuses on the Science Museum in London, specifically the museum’s historic collection of sound recording and reproduction technology.

Over the next three months I will be undertaking archival research at the Science Museum to try to find out more about the broader context through which the acoustics collection has been assembled, and how it has been displayed, from the late nineteenth century to the present. I will then be developing a series of object biographies which aim to tell small stories about the history of the acoustics collection on display.

Potential candidates for these ‘star objects’ include a small square of tinfoil. The innocuous bit of tinfoil was used by curators to tell a much bigger story about the first demonstration of Edison’s Tinfoil phonograph in 1877, when the inventor recorded, onto tinfoil, the famous words “Mary had a little lamb”.

Another candidate is the so-called ‘Audition Room’ devised, though possibly never actually made, by curator and acoustics expert Victor Chew for the Acoustics Gallery in the 1960s. The Audition Room would be used to host equipment representing the reproduction of sound in high-fidelity in a domestic setting. Once inside, visitors would be able to draw a curtain to screen off the outside, thereby conjuring the atmosphere of listening at home.

Following my period of research at the Science Museum, I will be writing an open-access article to be submitted to the Science Museum’s Group Journal. I will be feeding back the findings of my research to museums and heritage professionals through a one-day workshop. An interactive webpage – with plenty of sound – will also allow a broader public to access the findings of my research.

As a recent doctoral graduate, the project is giving me the chance to gain hands on experience in researching museum collections and museum practice. So far, I have been able to sit alongside the researchers and curators at the Science Museum, and have witnessed how an exhibition is put together at the various stages of its development. The project is also offering me the opportunity to extend my academic research interests into new areas. My PhD research, which was based in the School of Geography at Nottingham, looked at the role of sound in shaping understandings of landscape within a range of artistic and institutional settings. The ‘Acoustics on Display’ project is giving me the time, the resources, as well as the support, to think more about sound and about the broader social and cultural history of applied acoustics.

The project also reinforces the on-going set of exchanges between Department of Culture, Film and Media and the Science Museum around the subject of sound, as illustrated through the recent AHRC research network project ‘Music, Noise and Silence’. It is hoped that the network and the Acoustics on Display project will offer valuable HEI researcher support to the Science Museum as it progresses with the development of a future exhibition on sound and science.

Jennifer Rich, Cultural Engagement Fellow, Department of Culture, Film and Media

More information about Acoustics on Display: Collecting and Curating at the Science Museum can be found here:

Posted in Culture, Film and Media