The exhibition Paris-Londres, Music Migrations (1962-1989) is currently on display at the Musée National de L’Histoire de L’Immigration in Paris. In terms of contents, it draws a parallel between how Paris and London were reshaped into multicultural capitals in the late 20th century as a result of post-colonial immigration. In order to reveal a great deal about the issues brought about by the migration, dislocation and acculturation of generations of post-colonial immigrants to these countries, curators have used the lens of popular music specifically by illustrating how migrants have used music to express their joys, hopes and aspirations, and to fight against racism. Overall, the exhibition illustrates how genres of popular music have intersected and developed to build up the multicultural musical expression we know today, thereby depicting popular music as a contextually situated platform for cultural exchange. (more…)

Play it Loud is an exhibition dedicated to the musical instruments which have been the hallmark of Rock & Roll and to the iconic musicians that have used them throughout the history of Rock and Roll music. It is being staged at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (colloquially The Met), a museum known for collecting and presenting works of art ranging from classical antiquity and Ancient Egypt to great Masters from all around the world. At first glance, a museum like The Met showing artifacts related to musical practices deemed rebellious might appear surprising and controversial. Such an exhibition, nonetheless, is in continuity with The Met’s approach, in that the museum has long been developing encyclopaedic collections of musical instruments, costumes and accessories from musical practices around the world. At the same time, the fact that The Met is holding this exhibition is not surprising in that, given every year there appears an exhibition around such a topic almost everywhere, it has become remarkable in recent times for a museum to stage an exhibition about popular music.

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If one had to be brief, one might say that Electro: from Kraftwerk to Daft Punkis an exhibition tracing 30 years of electronic music and experimentalism at the Philharmonie de Paris until the 11th of August 2019. A standard review would then follow, highlighting the uniqueness and singularity of some of the objects on display and drawing readers’ attention to the artists involved in the project and to the work of the sound designer and of the scenographer. None of this would be wrong, for sure. However, this exhibition, Electro, is, at least in museological terms, much more than this: in short, it is an event that has much to offer on how to effectively build experiential exhibitions, based on the landmark assumption of museum studies that an exhibition should facilitate dialogic rather than linear communication. In fact, several aspects are particularly worth mentioning as they closely align with a contemporary museum framework, as I would like to demonstrate:

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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.

The Soundtracks exhibition was held at the SFMoMA from July 2017 to January 1st, 2018. I do not usually choose to comment on an exhibition after it has closed, but this time I only had the opportunity to visit it at the very end. I was actually staying in San Francisco for the last 15 days of the exhibition to conduct interviews about how museum-goers received the work The Visitors, which was part of the Soundtracks’exhibition but, of course, I took the opportunity to have a look at the other exhibits for myself.

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Michael Jackson: On the Wallis currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until October 21st. In the words of Nicholas Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery director and the curator, the exhibition seeks to convey the artists’ ‘[…] fascination, solidarity or sympathy for what Jackson represented, what he did and what was done to him. The exhibition examines Michael Jackson as both an artist recognised as such by other artists, and as a total work of art’ [1].

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