The Museum of Portable Sound: forging connections between the virtual and the physical

The Museum of Portable Sound is a noteworthy contribution to the preservation and exhibition of sound as objects of culture. Because of its name and content, you might be expecting it to be placed on and accessed through a web page or app, but actually its sound objects are housed in an iPhone, which constitutes the physical museum itself. To visit it, one has to go to the museum’s webpage and book an in-person visit with its director, John Kannenberg. As he is based in London, the museum is primarily visited there; however, it can be visited elsewhere in the world, whenever John is travelling. The fact that the museum is accessed in such a format is clearly intentional: in fact, Kannenberg wanted the sound files to be endowed with a sense of exclusiveness and distinction by means of facilitating access to them through in person visits.

Conceptually, the museum is a successful and creative adaption of the conventional museum. John Kannenberg is a unique, sensitive and creative person, who puts humour in everything he does and so he is kind of part of the ‘building’ of The Museum of Portable Sound. When he arrives at the appointment, he sits with you at a table and assembles a plaque with the name of the museum, giving it a ‘permanent’ setting. I find this is one of the most meaningful moments of the visiting process; whilst being a simple gesture that may go unnoticed or undervalued by most visitors, it is a particularly emblematic and symbolic action in the sense that it assigns The Museum of Portable Sound a clear connection with what we acknowledge as a museum. It is greatly innovative and somehow humorous to see how quickly Kannenberg establishes a whole museum and opens up its doors for visitors by the single gesture of putting a plaque on a table.

Together with the iPhone ‘venue’, Kannenberg carries leaflets with a virtual plan of the museum and a catalogue with relevant information about the objects displayed, thereby creating virtual pathways and allowing the visitor to create their own route. Access to the sound files is thus easily gained by means of a parallel with a real four-floor museum. The leaflet depicts its map of galleries – floor 0 comprises a Members’ Room and a space for Temporary Exhibitions; floor 1 the Natural History gallery divided into insects, other animals, and weather & water; floor 2 is wholly dedicated to Science and Technology, ascribing specific spaces to sounds from laboratories and medicine, acoustics, recording history, audio interfaces, glitches, and audio equipment from the 20th and 21st centuries; floor 3 concentrates on exhibiting sound from Space and Architecture, namely a section for construction, exteriors & tours, another for doors, windows & fixtures, a third for plumbing, heating and cooling, and a final one for interiors; lastly, floor 4, Arts & Culture, is the whole museum’s main space, comprising nine thematic spaces: art processes, archaeology, bells, transport, food, rituals and events, libraries and archives, museums, and exhibitions of sound. Because the floors are actually displayed digitally in the iPhone, visitors can jump easily from the first to the fourth floor without having to take virtual elevators or the escalators. The catalogue helps us move smoothly among the different galleries presented in sequence, providing additional and relevant information about each sound-object, and offering four guided tours. Other strategies and approaches have been successfully imported from traditional museum practice, for example exclusive objects (such as the first recording of a human voice, the sound of the tallest waterfall in Germany, etc.), and a shop with appealing souvenirs and merchandising.

The selection of the sound objects does not seek to be somehow comprehensive or driven by pre-existent guidelines but rather stems from Kannenberg’s long-standing work of recording sound. Files have been assembled into meaningful groups, thus giving rise to a conceptual structure. Nevertheless, it is clear that Arts & Culture is given top billing, not only because it contains the largest number of galleries and exhibits, but also because it is given the top floor. According to the principles of information value established by Kress & van Leeuwen (1996) in their insightful grammar of visual design, what is placed at the top of the layout is presented as the Ideal, whereas what is placed at the bottom is presented as the Real and factual. If something is seen as ‘ideal’, it is presented as the idealised or generalised essence of the information and hence it is also its most salient part. The ‘real’ is then placed in opposition or contrast to this, in that it presents more down-to-earth or more practical information.

As for the sound objects themselves, these are remarkable. Although in this review I am drawing on no other body of theory but my own aesthetic perception, I cannot prevent myself from mentioning that I find Kannenberg to show fine-grained and tasteful sensibility both in selecting the objects’ sonic contents and in defining their beginnings and ends: neither too much nor too little.

The museum offers an excellent and comprehensive way in to the understanding of sound culture for an audience ranging from 7 to 77 years old. So if you have not visited it yet, do your best to book your appointment. Once you have completed your tour, you can consider yourself a distinguished cultural expert and be counted an aesthete by your friends and acquaintances.

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. 1996. Reading Images, the Grammar of Visual Design, London and New York: Routledge.


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