Representing, writing, and imagining with sound in museum exhibitions

After the great success achieved by the recent trend in commissioning exhibitions about pop-rock music and its leading figures1and, above all, after these exhibitions have proved to be particularly effective in sending shivers down one’s spine as they exhibit music, a bold new experiment seems to be emerging, namely equipping virtually any sort of exhibition with a sonic layer – in other words, commissioning a team of sound designers to compose a soundtrack specifically for an exhibition. Examples of this trend seem to have effectively grabbed the attention of both museum-goers and practitioners. Among these could be mentioned Robots at the Science Museum, London (2017), with sound design by Coda to Coda, and Video Games at the V&A in London (2018), also with sound design by Coda to Coda, the sound layer of which is really interesting and compelling. Anyway, from all the exhibitions on this theme that I have seen so far, the one that has made the strongest impression on me was Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, which was on exhibition at the V&A until 18thNovember, with sound design by Ben and Max Ringham. I found its soundtrack really did set the right atmosphere for its contents.

Although it is in itself already very suggestive, the fact that the exhibition was presenting, for the first time outside Mexico, an extraordinary collection of personal artefacts and clothing belonging to the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (which has been locked away for the 50 years since her death), I cannot avoid marking it out for its soundtrack’s effectiveness in setting an affective pattern for the exhibition. In fact, I furthermore believe that the majority of the museum-goers left the exhibition without noticing its soundtrack, which is similar to what happens with soundtracks for movies most of the time, but I am sure that the extent to which they enjoyed the exhibition was in a great part set by the sound design.

This points to a wider theoretical discussion regarding communicating in museum exhibitions. In fact, the knowledge delivered by the social sciences about how humans manage to organise their lives and relationships for the purpose of maintaining the species has reached the point of an extraordinary complexity and value which cannot be comprehensibly encoded solely by the written word. Alongside this, many changes in the wider social and cultural orders have occurred: knowledge is no longer fixed, authority in communication is increasingly being rejected, and there is a quest for the semiotic power to reach a broader number of people. Within this backdrop, the representational and communication power of a sound layer has been receiving more and more attention from both practitioners and scholars. Whereas the written word alone cannot do justice to non-discursive information (such as that of the dynamic nature of the phenomena and the expressive and impressive dimensions that are present in the communication processes), museum exhibitions do have a lot to offer in this regard, for they can easily call upon other modes such as images and sound to convey those dimensions; ultimately, in providing the exhibition with a soundtrack, the curators are offering further layered narratives.

Hence, to rely on sound to communicate within museum exhibitions is not an option but rather an urge for the exhibition’s subjects to be written down.

 

Notes

1 David Bowie Is, V&A (2013), Bjork, MoMA (2015), You Say you Want a Revolution, V&A (2016), Velvet Underground: New York Extravaganza, Philharmonie de Paris (2016), Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones, Saatchi Gallery London (2016), Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, V&A (2017), Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery, London (2018), and many more.

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