Locos in a Different Light at the National Railway Museum, York, employs sound and light to create dramatic effects

Sound advice

Rob Sharp, Issue 113/01, p24-29, 02.01.2013
Using sound in exhibitions is a great way to engage visitors, but it needs to be done right. Rob Sharp opens his ears to the latest thinking
Victorian society still thrives on board the ss Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s majestic former passenger steamship, now ensconced in a dry dock in the heart of Bristol.

Deep inside the ship’s galley, the engine thrums, rats squeak and dinner plates crash to the ground. A layered soundtrack augments this popular visitor attraction, converting a conventional museum tour into an immersive experience, authentically rooted in the vessel’s 19th-century heyday.

Museum sound archives and the use of new sound effects continue to provide a cost-effective means of engaging visitors, as long as they are employed in innovative ways.

The ss Great Britain’s galley, where loudspeakers relay a professionally rendered, subtly mixed soundtrack, relies on the know-how of people such as Karen Partridge, an experienced filmmaker and radio producer.

However, not all museums are lucky enough to have access to such expertise – as a result, there is a knowledge gap in the effective use of archive and original sound in museums.

But Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, which boasts its own considerable sound collection, has a project that aims to improve the sector’s ability to curate, store, digitise and showcase auditory treasures.

“We had this fantastic resource which had never been heard and wanted to reconnect different parts of the same collection,” says Chris Morton, the museum’s curator of photograph and manuscript collections.

Morton is also the project leader for Reel to Real, a sound archive project that the museum has developed with funding from the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

The museum held a workshop in late November where the use of sound in ethnographic museums was discussed.

Sound vocabularies

“Museums can find it hard to deliver sound,” says Morton. “We wanted to think through the issues they face in a funded project.”

So what are the problems and how can museums overcome them? It seems that the answer varies according to the sound in question, but is often a mixture of strong research, storytelling and an acute awareness of an institution’s audience.

If the sounds to be played are authentic material, such as a folk song recorded in the field, it might have a community engagement function.

The Pitt Rivers Museum’s Noel Lobley, an ethnomusicologist with a specialism in African music, found that many contemporary African communities had no direct relationship with historic archives, a phenomenon often seen in Europe.

“Just to record the community is not enough,” he says. “The ethics of that get discussed a lot. What is as important is how you deliver it. And how do you do that when it’s also much harder for people to talk about sounds than photos. We are a much more visual society than we are an auditory one.”

The way to circumvent this, according to Lobley, is both to educate people and integrate newly unearthed sound with existing collections in inventive ways, addressing people’s disconnection with local noises, and those recorded further away.

With this in mind, Lobley set about taking archives out of their storage spaces and transporting them everywhere from old people’s homes to townships in Africa and noting subjects’ responses.

Around Oxford, he has collaborated with local schools, playing sound samples to children in order to improve their sound vocabulary.

“Their appreciation of the sounds after a series of such sessions improves dramatically,” he says. “It all goes towards answering the question: how can you integrate these recordings into something we can learn?”

The answer may come through the museum’s Christmas Light Night, put on with the help of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s composer-in-residence Nathaniel Mann.

It sees visitors grab a torch and explore the museum during twilight hours, when sound can have a greater impact. Slide projections, tribal music and atmospheric sound add to the experience.

Listening to galleries

“The night-time increases people’s engagement,” says Lobley. “There’s something about galleries which make people prepared to listen to anything.”

So after dark is also a good time to showcase the museum’s extensive archives – everything from European children’s songs to Asante drumming in Ghana – to a captive audience with few other distractions. A key point is to create variety for visitors: don’t just provide conventional listening posts within the gallery space.

London’s Foundling Museum’s 2011 exhibition Foundling Voices was a traditional oral history project showcasing stories about those children who grew up in the hospital’s care.

But these spoken words were broadcast imaginatively: directional speakers, pressure pads, ear pieces dangling from the ceiling were all employed to keep people interested.

“We wanted sound and the storytellers’ voices to be visitors’ main experience, but we also wanted that to be shared between people,” says exhibition coordinator Alison Duke.

“Headphones can be isolating but you do get deeper into the material. So while we did use listening posts for longer extracts, elsewhere we had to think more creatively.”

Visitors arriving would trigger an audio extract; this, along with earpieces, would provide the visual cues to tell people that “this is an exhibition based around sound”, she explains.

Duke says the biggest technical challenges were preventing “sound bleed” between spaces, the acoustics of which change dramatically depending on how many visitors are present. She also highlights the skewed distribution of digitisation expertise within the industry.

“For recorded sound, museums are reliant on specialist organisations such as the British Library,” Duke says. “Museums who have archives often aren’t aware of expertise in related disciplines that they can call on.”

She says that the clever use of silence can bring nuance to a previously flat text or transcript. “Sound gives you so much more,” Duke says. “It’s personal. It’s another way to engage people.”

Ambient experiences

The alternative to employing pre-recorded material is to create it from scratch. Will Watts, head of public programmes at Scarborough Museums Trust, collaborated with Rob Mackay, a composer and sound artist at the University of Hull, to enliven a small space on a tight budget for the Rotunda Museum’s Lost Dinosaurs show.

Watt says the museum used recent research from Bristol University into the putative sound of Jurassic insects, and managed to research, record and create sounds for under £500.

“We didn’t want something cheesy like roaring dinosaurs, it had to be an ambient experience,” Watts says. “We’ve referred to the fossil record when making our soundtrack, and we wanted something that doesn’t overwhelm people, but that takes them out of their normal realm of thinking.”

Media and arts professionals can provide much-needed expertise. Karen Partridge, who regularly collaborates with institutions on sound design through her firm Natural Life Productions, was able to capitalise on Bristol’s plethora of post-production studios to bring the ss Great Britain to life.

An actor was employed to read out authentic diary entries written when the ship was active. Commonly employed sea shanties were recorded, and plates were smashed in a sound studio to mimic a vessel at sea.

“You need to think of the key sounds that allow someone to use their imagination to take them to a certain time and place,” Partridge says. “That’s what you do in radio.”

She says that the final soundtrack of the ship’s galley was so intense that the space felt claustrophobic; a sign that her team were heading in the right direction.

Imagination and cross-disciplinary thinking need to be employed if institutions are to properly capitalise on sound’s varied advantages. For starters, however, it is best to employ Watts’s philosophy of sound use, which emphasises quality over gimmickry.

“It’s about making sure people don’t notice, but do,” he says. “You don’t want people to think: ‘That’s an interesting sound.’ You want them to come out thinking: ‘That was an exhibition that I really liked.’”

Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist

Seen and heard at the museum

York’s National Railway Museum, part of the Science Museum Group, recently won plaudits for its use of sound effects and light in Locos in a Different Light, an event that sees the museum’s locomotives illuminated with lighting designed by local students as part of an ongoing competition.

Now an annual fixture, soundtracks are an integral part of audiences’ experiences. While sound can be a cheap means of augmenting the experience, technology can be as high-tech as an institution’s budget allows.

In 2004 the Churchill War Rooms in central London commissioned design consultancy Casson Mann – working with sound design experts Liminal – to create a soundscape in the exhibition’s central space.

“Spatialised sounds” respond to people’s movements, with audio playing as visitors scroll through various items in Winston Churchill’s documents. Subsequent surveys revealed a high level of audience engagement, with lots of visitors wanting to return.

The Science Museum has a long history of adopting interesting approaches to sound and often uses artists to achieve this. One of its most recent projects explored early radio in an installation that featured archive recordings, newly created text and radio interference.

The Babble Machine, which could be seen throughout November last year, was a collaboration between musician Aleksander Kolkowski, researcher Alison Hess and science historian and poet Katy Price.