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:
Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the very first sound-focused exhibition staged by the British Library and it brings to public view material from the tremendous resource which is the British Library Sound Archive. The exhibition tells the story of sound recording since the invention of the phonograph in 1877, reflects the impact of radio in the 20th century, and the importance of sound in recording our lives and cultural heritage. It is part of a major event the British Library is conducting, Season of Sound, celebrating all aspects of the listening experience, which comprises a programme of accompanying events such as lectures, tours and workshops, all aiming at connecting people with their audio heritage.
If one of the purposes of the 21st-century museum is to facilitate and broaden the general public’s knowledge without losing depth and rigour, then Opera: passion, power and politics, the first exhibition to be staged inside the V&A’s large new underground exhibition space, ranks among the most successful temporary exhibitions I have seen lately. In fact, although opera used to be a particularly popular and exciting genre for a long time in the past, today it is music for a very restricted elite and so this exhibition stands out for bringing a comprehensible account of it to a potential wider audience.
Of all of the museums of popular music that I have ever visited, Ragnarock, the museum for pop, rock and youth culture in Roskilde, Denmark, is for sure the one I have enjoyed the most so far, not just from the aesthetical point of view but also because it is the one whose narrative best conveys contemporary knowledge about popular music, knowledge gained from both popular music studies and ethnomusicology.
The permanent exhibition displays are of an unusual contemporaneity and remarkable design, thereby creating a very attractive and bold environment. Nevertheless, for museums to rely on innovative technology to convey their narratives is becoming more and more common sense. It is therefore the narrative itself that merits my highest praise, in that it completely departs from the approaches of conventional museums as regards music. More to the point, Ragnarock’s narrative reflects the current perspectives of music studies as an endeavour that approaches music as a cultural and social practice, i.e, a practice created not only by music and musicians but also by people using it to develop themselves as individuals with an identity, to build communities, and to produce and challenge societies. Furthermore, in conceptually placing a great emphasis on audiences as consumers of popular music throughout the whole narrative, the museum is ultimately conveying the idea that people do not need to be musicians to engage with and thereby participate in the production of popular music.
What does it mean to be immersive?
Although I have consistently maintained that there is no established and tested practice of exhibiting popular music in museums, I believe the time has come to renew this discourse, at least with regard to Western museum practice, where, indeed, popular music exhibitions have become increasingly common. While in the beginning these were displayed at some marginal or smaller culture institutions, nowadays they are flourishing in acknowledged and institutional museums, particularly in the form of tribute narratives. An example of this practice is the exhibition I saw in Paris, The Velvet Underground, New York Extravaganza, on display at the Philharmonie until 26th August 2016.
Everything that museum professionals have long been waiting for a museum exhibition to achieve but which has not yet been invented.
The only possible way to start my essay about the installation-work The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansoon, on display in The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, is by highlighting the memorable way I experienced it, as well as the exhilaration, passion and pleasure that I felt. I became even more delighted when I realised that, in addition to the rewarding experience I had had, the installation-work also accomplishes two things that are, it seems to me, of particular significance today. On the one hand, it achieves one of the most demanding goals of contemporary museum studies in that it provides the museum-goers with avenues not to learn or contemplate but to experience some dimensions of life. On the other hand, although it was certainly not an intentional gesture by the curator, The Visitors is particularly interesting in that the experience it provides visitors with is theoretically informed by ethnomusicology, most notably by placing the museum-goers within a rich picture-experience of the relevance of music to human life. Additionally, the fact that music’s role in and significance to society is not being carried conventionally by words by the installation-work, but is being conveyed by the experience itself that it endows museum-goers with, stands like a cherry on the top of the cake: ultimately, in the installation-work The Visitors, it is the experience that is the text.