Rockheim, The National Museum for Norwegian popular music: towards establishing listening as a reading practice for visitors in museums

Rockheim is the Norwegian national museum for popular music, which alone is already very singular: despite the growing trend towards celebrating and exhibiting popular music in museums, few are the countries which are given a national museum specifically to take care of and address the country’s popular music. The idea for the museum emerged during a conference in 1998 focusing on the discussion of musical and sound archives, during which the delegates recognised the need to preserve Norwegian popular music as heritage. There then followed a long development process until the museum’s opening in Trondheim in 2010.

The face of the museum, its building, is really interesting in that it combines the contrasting style and materials of an old storehouse with that of a contemporary box added to the top of the building, thereby suggesting a bond between past and present; This box is clad in glass decorated with reproductions of album covers and changeable back-lighting,  which color can be changed. Such illumination is really impressive, and assigns the museum the stature of a city’s landmark. As for its narrative, Rockheim is devised according to the more conventional approach of ‘telling’ history, in this case the Norwegian history of popular music. Its permanent exhibition, placed in the abovementioned ‘top box’, celebrates Norway’s popular music from the 1950s to today by spanning it across 6 rooms, each dedicated to a decade. In addition to this sequence called The Time Tunnel, there is an introductory playful area, The Hall of Honour, which encompasses the most famous Norwegian musicians and exhibits their music, while The Tools of Rock and Roll addresses a particular path, starting with the making of a musical instrument, passing through studio rehearsals and stage performances, finishing with how people record and listen. It achieves this not only by exhibiting material culture but also with a great emphasis on providing explanations through exhibiting examples of non-material culture, such as individual songs. Finally, there is a room fully dedicated to Black Metal, a genre whose origins are traditionally attributed to Norway. From this permanent exhibition staged in the ‘top box’, visitors proceed downwards, floor by floor, to a media library and a restaurant, to a Do it Yourself space in which visitors can get actively involved in exploring music, and to a room of temporary exhibitions.

Although the narrative’s approach to popular music in the permanent exhibition appears conventional in that it is mainly historical, the same cannot be said of the strategies and resources used to convey the information. In fact, I firmly believe that it is through the singularity of the communicational strategies used for conveying the narrative that the museum stands out and innovates. Indeed, the historical narrative is mainly conveyed not by relying on the conventional display of textual explanations on panel texts – which are actually not provided – but hinted at through two main strategies. On the one hand, we have the recreation of specific visual ambiences of the decades concerned, which, together with the symbolism carried by the many items of material culture displayed, transport the visitor to a specific time. On the other hand, the narrative is conveyed not only by drawing on the exhibition of sound and music which elicits nostalgia and remembrance by means of offering up songs beloved by visitors, but also, and most innovatively, by sometimes drawing on the music’s informative potential to communicate specific ideas.

While the option to use the sonic to elicit nostalgia and remembrance in museums contexts is not new, I find it quite unique that the museum is using it as an informative resource and so paving the way for the establishment of the sonic in place of writing and reading practices in museums, in other words, as an alternative epistemology. At the same time, social and private listening practices are explored, in that music and sound are exhibited in the museum rooms both through the more social public loudspeakers and through the more intimate private headsets.

Mention must also be made of the fact that the visitor is given a fundamental role in deciding which story is to be delivered in almost every room of the permanent exhibition at the very moment of their visit, which results in the museum performing personal narratives, rather than displaying a singular non-ephemeral one, as is the case in more traditional museums. Finally, should the visitors have trouble in grasping the opportunities provided by the technologies of each room, Rockheim’s staff work as living guides, engaged to provide assistance with this and also to help focus on other topics of cultural history suggested by the objects displayed, thus making the narrative also thematic.

Rockheim is also designed to stimulate both popular music dynamics and reflection upon them, not only by delivering educational programmes (one of which, the initiative of using music to work with elderly sufferers from memory-related diseases, stands out to me as the most remarkable), but also by offering new bands the opportunity to perform in a museum concert, while also providing lectures which accompany the themes of the main and temporary exhibitions.

Rockheim excels and is certainly an example of particular interest in pushing the boundaries of museum practice, through its clear orientation towards celebrating popular music as national heritage, through its eagerness to elicit nostalgia and remembrance along with a sense of belonging and identity by the act of exhibiting music, and through its provision of meaningful and purposeful interaction with visitors by offering multiple narratives in response to visitors’ choices. In other words, the exhibition attempts not to reproduce reality but to experimentally rearrange it, and this constitutes an emancipation from the fixed practices of traditional museums.

Last, but certainly not least, it paves the way towards establishing the sonic as on a par with writing and reading resources with communicative and informative potential and, hence, towards establishing sonic epistemologies in museums.


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