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Bringing museums to life through sound

From soundscapes of Bradford to compositions in caves, Dr James Mansell explains how he is working with museums to enrich visitors’ experiences
Vision Arts and Culture Bringing museums to life through sound

Museums haven’t traditionally been places associated with noise. Yet listening, just as much as looking, can connect us to our past, present and future, as well as to unfamiliar places and times.

Sounds are as much a part of our social and cultural history as the exhibits themselves, so my work is about looking at ways we can help museums use them to bring their collections to life.

Listening can help us to learn as well as keeping us entertained. Working with venues across the UK, I have been attempting to get a better understanding of the way audiences interact with displays and what we can to do make them even more engaging.

I’ve worked with composers to create pieces of music to accompany exhibitions - one about the Second World War at the British Library and another about Nottingham’s social history that took place in the caves at the Brewhouse Yard Museum of Nottingham Life.

I’ve also collaborated with staff at the National Science and Media Museum (NSMM) in Bradford to carry out a series of public listening sessions, which gave us really valuable information about the way museum audiences listen and how new visitor experiences could be designed in the future.

They may not be a visible, tangible object like a book or a painting but my work is ensuring that museums consider sounds as artefacts in their own right
Dr James Mansell

So many exhibits in museums across the country lend themselves to sound, yet they remain silent. We want to make sure we’re getting the most out of them and giving visitors a powerful experience. Take for example the Parlophone horn gramophone at the NSMM. How do we share with visitors the rich crackle of its music that simply can’t be recreated by an MP3?

Even those that weren’t designed specifically to make a noise can tell us an important story. Take, for example, Florence Nightingale’s leather moccasins. She reportedly wore them to reduce noise on her wards in the Crimea, arguing that patients recovered better in quieter conditions. Something as simple as a pair of slippers tells a powerful story about the importance of sound, hearing and listening.

There is also a clear need for museums to think through the political significance of sound as well as the practical possibilities for public engagement. Everyday sounds are shaped by the cultures around them and contain traces of the societies that made them.

They may not be a visible, tangible object like a book or a painting but my work is ensuring that museums consider sounds as artefacts in their own right.

James Mansell

Dr James Mansell is Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies, Faculty of Arts.

Vision magazine front cover - Issue 4, Autumn 2019

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