The average dwell time in the Museum’s Akan Drum exhibition was around 6 minutes, the same length as the display’s audio-visual soundtrack. © Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum, London

Stuart Frost, 15.09.2017
Understanding visitors’ feeling about music in exhibitions
The British Museum in London has used ambient sound and music in special exhibitions for the past 15 years. In most instances the use of sound has been confined to one or two moments as part of a wider visitor journey.     

The museum’s interpretation team has been undertaking a summative evaluation of exhibitions over the same period, which provide some thoughts on the use of music that have a basis in visitor feedback rather than personal opinion.

Experience suggest that sound requires as much research, planning and interpretation as any other element of any exhibition. Soundscapes and well-chosen pieces of music can be exceptionally effective at creating atmosphere, signalling narrative change and engendering emotional engagement.

Although sound can be a powerful interpretive tool, it can also provoke strong opinions and polarised reactions, as the following visitor feedback from the same exhibition reveal:

More music would have been nice. It creates more mood and atmosphere.”

I didn’t hear any music. I didn’t notice any music at all.”

The muzak is incredibly irritating and detracted significantly from my enjoyment.”

Qualitative summative evaluation captures a range of diverse responses. Quantitative data, however, is overwhelmingly in favour.

The visitors above were all commenting on the 2012 exhibition Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam. Visitors entering the exhibition passed along a curved corridor, flanked by life-sized photographs of pilgrims and accompanied by a soundtrack of the Adhan (call to prayer) and the Talbiya (a prayer).

The quantitative data gathered as part of the summative evaluation identified this audio as one of the highlights of the show, and one of the most successful uses of sound in a British Museum exhibition to date.

Based on a decade’s worth of exhibition evaluation, the vast majority of exhibition goers appreciate the sensitive and appropriate use of sound. A very small proportion of visitors will usually vehemently dislike it.

The objections usually focus around an inability to block-out distracting sound, frustration about repetition or sound inadvertently spilling into other areas. The last two points can be dealt with by careful choreographing or appropriate hardware. 

Stuart Frost is the head of interpretation and volunteers at the British Museum