Sound is all around us – and museums and galleries are increasingly using it to create immersive experiences that allow visitors to enjoy collections and exhibitions in new and exciting ways.
“Audio can be the perfect entry level to immersive technology for museums,” says Tim Powell, a freelance producer and creative consultant. “It’s far cheaper than visual technology and is a manageable way to create an effective augmented-reality (AR) experience, especially because of its time-travel possibilities.”
As head of the Creative R&D Studio at Historic Royal Palaces, Powell has led popular audio projects such as The Lost Palace.
“Audio is great for playing with human scale, and this is very interesting because the way the brain receives sound is linked to memory and emotion,” he says. “You can have the intimacy of someone whispering in your ear, like being a witness to Anne Boleyn’s secret marriage, or the sensation of being in a massive crowd at the execution of Charles I.”
When it comes to designing experiences, museums must first consider what type of experience they want, says Powell.
“It’s crucial to think carefully about the audience context. Is it an individual experience with noise-cancelling headphones, or a collective one in a standalone space, such as those recreated by the events company Darkfield, which take place in shipping containers and recreate intense experiences such as a séance or a coma?”
Powell welcomes the creative possibilities of sound but adds a note of caution.
“We are familiar with traditional storytelling, but immersive technology takes you into a spatial world, and we must make sure that people know where they are. We don’t yet fully know the rules, and it can trigger a fight or flight response or cause sensory overload. So there is a duty of care to visitors, staff and volunteers.”
Other types of audio experience help to dissolve the barriers that might exist between buildings and their surroundings.
Historic England’s High Street Sound Walks extend beyond the heritage setting, allowing visitors to take a self-guided route around the local area (there are six towns so far), with an illustrated map. Sound artists worked with communities to develop site-specific stories that encourage people to slow down, pause and reflect. Accessible formats for the deaf and hard-of-hearing include creative writing interpretations of the sound walks.
At the V&A Dundee, two sound commissions revealed new aspects of the building and its striking architecture. The partnerships, with creative agency MSCTY and composer Midori Takada, and Scottish-Portuguese musician and sound artist SHHE, explored the interior and exterior environments.
“The sound art heightens our experience of movement in and around the structures we share our cities with and opens our ears to the sounds that are happening all around – nature and city and site – in an ever-evolving composition,” says assistant curator Becca Clark.
“They provoke a pause in the ways our visitors navigate in and around the museum, not as rooms, but as a space to roam, and to get to know it as much in its open spaces as through its objects.”
At the Hepworth Wakefield, sound artist Nwando Ebizie created the Garden of Circular Paths, an audio response to Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture, as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International summer festival last year.
“Nwando’s sonic journey offers something entirely new to the experience of sculpture,” says Eleanor Clayton, a curator at the Wakefield gallery. “Her binaural field recordings immerse you in the sounds of the moors and the sea, landscapes from which Hepworth drew inspiration. Incorporating music provides an abstract counterpoint to the sculpture, an accompanying but distinct rhythm, of which I am sure Hepworth, who described sculpture as ‘rhythm, dance and everything’, would have wholly approved.”
West-Yorkshire based Ebizie has visual snow syndrome, a rare disorder that disrupts her vision.
“An artist who works with sound will bring in new ideas and new ways, and especially for people who are disabled,” says Clayton. “We are largely visual and there’s a massive space for other sensory perspectives. Sound does things to your sense of space. People mention that their vision changes, something happens in the space – they stop being able to read the wall text, for example.”
An aural alternative to text labels can be found at World Museum Liverpool, part of National Museums Liverpool (NML), where award-winning poet Sarah Howe brought new life to Chinese ceramics in the World Cultures gallery. Howe wrote poems from the perspective of the objects, set within an immersive experience that complements and sheds new light on them.
The project inspired students from a local high school to write poems following an object-handling workshop, while adult writing groups were also inspired by the audiovisual immersive atmosphere. Visitor evaluation will inform future plans, including the redevelopment of the Benin displays at NML.
“By introducing audiovisual, we have brought movement, colour and humanity to the gallery,” says Alex Blakeborough, an assistant curator at the World Museum. “It allows the viewer to be fully immersed in the story, making you feel that the objects are speaking directly to you, and so making you care for them.”
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist