Why Listen to Museums?

This is the text of a talk I gave during the Soundscapes Late event at the National Gallery in London on 4 September, 2015. You can also download and listen to a recording of the talk on my SoundCloud page.

Why Listen to Museums?

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk within the museum profession about how museum visitors want museums to listen to them. This latest crisis in the museum world gave rise to a flurry of new activities designed to listen to the public. Bulletin boards covered with post-it notes began popping up inside exhibitions asking people to share their own stories. Texts on object labels began asking questions instead of proffering answers. Terms like “User Experience” crept into curatorial jargon.

Museums can seem like places very disconnected from contemporary life. They usually contain objects that were either made long before any of us were born, or things that were just made yesterday that seem to come from another planet. We may look at these things and feel inspired; or we might also feel that these things were made for an exclusive club of which we are not, and never will be, a member.

No matter what our opinion is about the things we find in museums, when we visit them we always seem to do our duty as museum goers: we walk around a lot, we look at stuff, we read stuff, we take selfies next to Rembrandt and we share them online. Secretly, or maybe not so secretly, we may wonder why we don’t see ourselves in what we’ve just looked at. If we remember listening to anything at all, it’s probably the disembodied voice that told us which floor we left the elevator. Or maybe we heard a baby crying, or the sound of a picture being taken, or someone coughing, just as we thought we’d finally figured out what Postmodernism is – but the sound broke our concentration and now we’re back to square one.

What do we hear in museums?

In the summer of 2010, I was living in Cairo, Egypt. I had been making audio recordings of the sounds inside museums for several years, but it was more of a vague curiosity than anything serious. I’d planned to go to Cairo to conduct some sonic research, knowing that I wanted to record sounds inside the Egyptian Museum (the big one just down the road from Tahrir Square), but I had no real idea what I would do with them. The Egyptian Museum has a strict “no photography” policy, so before I arrived I spoke with several Egyptologists who had conducted fieldwork there to see if I could possibly obtain permits to make audio recordings in the museum – I’d never been to Egypt before and didn’t speak Arabic, so I was hoping to avoid any awkward misunderstandings. The answer always came back the same: obtaining permits to make audio recordings inside the Egyptian Museum would not only be impossible, but the mere fact that I was inquiring about them would probably be so baffling to the Egyptian authorities that they would likely shut my project down before I’d even started it. They advised me, if at all possible, to just sneak a little portable audio recorder into the Museum.

To this end, one particular Egyptologist gave me a detailed briefing before my trip – a conversation that felt more like Ocean’s Eleven than travel advice. “There are three security checkpoints before you get into the Egyptian Museum,” he told me. “At the first one, they x-ray your bag and check your passport. At the second one, they x-ray your bag again, and then force you to surrender any photography equipment. The last one is inside the museum: there’s yet another x-ray machine, a metal detector that probably won’t work, and an army captain who’ll look like he’s there to search people. Don’t worry, he won’t touch you, it’s considered too impolite to touch tourists. So just put your recorder in a trouser pocket. They’ll never find it.” Those words echoed in my mind as I stepped out of a black taxi in front of the Egyptian Museum on my first day in Cairo – with my recorder in my trouser pocket.

The Museum’s security was just as the Egyptologist had described. I breezed through the first security checkpoint, and then the second. I surrendered my camera, and headed inside the museum. I placed my bag on the x-ray machine and walked through the metal detector. The bag was x-rayed without a problem. The recorder in my pocket, however, set off the metal detector. I glanced over at the army captain who was standing nearby, looking like he would search me but allegedly definitely wouldn’t. He looked at me and motioned me over. Then he searched me.

And of course, he found the recorder.

With his hand still on the recorder in my pocket, he cried out “Camera! Camera! Camera!” Three more soldiers came running over, surrounding me in a semi-circle. They pointed their rifles at me, and I heard three very loud clicks – ch-CHK – so I raised my arms over my head. And then there was silence in the museum.

Silence, except that I could hear my heart pounding, and the blood pumping inside my temples. I had no idea what to do – I didn’t speak Arabic! So I looked silently at the soldiers, and they looked back at me. Eventually, I motioned with one hand towards my pocket. The captain nodded. Slowly, I removed the recorder from my pocket and held it above my head.

“It’s not a camera,” I said, pointing at it.

“No?” the captain said.

“It’s a phone,” I said.

“A phone?”

“Yeah,” I said, “an American phone.”

The captain paused, looked at me, looked at my recorder.

Then he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. The three other soldiers lowered their rifles, and I walked into the museum with my recorder.

At that moment, I decided to record sound in every single room in that museum, no matter what happened to me. It took me four days of smuggling in my recorder, but I did it. Later, while I was reviewing a floorplan of the museum I had sketched out in order to determine where I still needed to record, I finally realised what I was doing: I was making a sound map of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – the first of several museum sound maps I would go on to make.

While recording there, I felt as if that place made history feel like something palpable, more than any other museum I’d visited up to that point. Obviously this was in part due to its ancient subject matter, but it also had something to do with the architecture. After years of low budgets, the museum was in need of renovation: some of the marble staircases were crumbling; old fluorescent lights buzzed and crackled their death throes as they flickered and went dark; even the skylights were broken, and birds flew freely throughout the museum, as if nature had already begun to reclaim it like a ruin. Mostly though, history was so palpable there because I was listening to that place so intently. It was a space filled with resonance and wonder, acoustically rich, bursting with sounds so intense that to me they felt physical, like objects.

But what was I listening for? Could I find meaning in the sounds if I read between the lines, if I listened between the floor creaks?

What might we hear in museums?

On the wall to my left is a painting from around the year 1500, created by Giovanni Bellini, entitled The Madonna of the Meadow. It’s an image of a mum virgin Mary and a sleeping baby Jesus; but these two quiet central characters are surrounded by a lively scene. There’s a vulture, some oxen, a snake, some sheep, and some people from contemporary Venice. Also, you can see some trees off in the distance, swaying in the breeze. The sound that this makes is called psithurism, a rather delightfully frilly word for something so simple. We look at those trees, and we already know exactly what they sound like. This sensation of remembering or imagining sound is known as phonomnesis. Museums with narrative paintings like these are filled with opportunities to experience phonomnesis. Our minds contain neurological jukeboxes, or maybe iPhones, filled with sonic memories that we can play back at will. We look at Bellini’s Madonna and we can see the landscape of 16th century Venice – but we can also hear its soundscape. If we’ve ever visited a country farm and listened to the animals there, or sat outside on an autumn day and listened to the wind whispering through the trees, we can recall what this painting might sound like, pulled up from the archives of our own memory, allowing us to sonically travel through time and space. It’s all there for us, waiting inside our heads.

On my right, there’s a painting of a head. This one’s also Jesus, but he’s a bit more uncomfortable than he was in the other painting. This is Christ Crowned with Thorns, painted in 1510 by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano. The picture is striking: there’s blood dripping from the thorns that are piercing his skin, and he’s crying.

He’s also staring at us from out of complete blackness, complete silence, meeting our gaze and inviting us to empathise with his predicament. If you were surrounded by complete silence like this, with thorns sticking into your skull, what do you think you would you hear? I’d be willing to bet it would be the sound of your own blood pumping in your temples.

Sometime in the mid–20th century, within the silence of an anechoic chamber – a room specifically built to be perfectly silent – the experimental musician John Cage once stood and, while listening closely, heard the sound of his own blood pumping through his veins, and his nervous system. He would later tell this story when making his famous declaration that there really is no such thing as silence.

In the summer of 2013, I was alone while making sound recordings in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. I walked up to a neon light sculpture entitled Human Nature/Life Death, made by Bruce Naumann in 1983. Unlike the decaying fluorescent tubes in the Egyptian Museum, these lights were still functioning properly, but they were making the same buzzing and crackling sounds. Through the experience of listening to Bruce Naumann’s piece, I was phonomnetically hearing those Egyptian lights again, particularly the light above a vitrine containing the mummy of a royal woman of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom. The light burned out above it as I stared into her face. Human nature. Life. Death.

We tend to think of museums as silent places. They’re really not though, once you actually start to listen to them. And their sounds profoundly affect our experiences inside them.

Last autumn, I began working on a sound map of Tate Modern. As I walked through the museum, I noticed that some of the ventilation ducts in the gallery floors are a bit loose, and if you step on them in a certain way, they make a lovely banging sound; so, I began methodically stepping on every single ventilation duct inside Tate Modern, one at a time, collecting recordings of the sound of my feet “playing” them.

This might seem like goofing around, and to some extent, it is. But within the resonance of a museum, and in my mind, even these somewhat ordinary sounds become extraordinary.

Museums as sonic environments contain a record of the present day mingled with the past. Every footstep, every echo, every bang of a ventilation duct that I record while in a museum captures data about how the sounds performed by contemporary people are affected by the historic objects in that space: objects that have been taken out of time and frozen within the non-time of the museum. Paintings on canvas absorb sounds, sculptures made of metal reflect them – these new sounds, activated by timeless physical objects are what I call the active sounds of history.

I walk through a museum and I walk through time itself, my sounding body interacting with the collections on view to create uniquely acoustic objects – sonic events within the continuum of history that I am driven to record, to collect, in much the same way that museums collect visual objects.

So, what do we want to hear in museums?

Museum audiences want museums to listen to them. We want our own stories to be told within these temples of memory, not just the stories that the people behind the scenes at the museum have decided we should hear. We don’t just want to take selfies with Rembrandt (I hope).

When we step into any large, resonant space, like a canyon, or even a parking garage, we’re often tempted to yell into the distance just to hear our own echo, to feel the sound of our own voices calling back to us. We want to use sound as a means by which to determine our place in the world.

Museums are similarly resonant spaces. But we want them to be culturally resonant as well. We want to hear ourselves in them. Sadly, most museums don’t collect sounds yet. But every person with the ability to hear can collect sounds of their own. And through the process of phonomnesis, we can easily access the sound archives that we store in our memories.

Until museums are able to catch up with us, until they begin to collect our own sounds and play them back for us, until someone creates a museum of sound, we can take a DIY approach to regain control of the sonic experience of museums.

We can make museums into places where we can listen to ourselves.


Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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