Sounding the Museum

Prior, David ORCID logoORCID: (2023) Sounding the Museum. In: DRHA Conference 2023, 10-13 September 2023, Turin, Italy.

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Abstract / Summary

This paper explores the role that sound recording has —and might yet have— in heritage practices. Recording technology has had an important role to play in the development of ethnography, but it has also exacerbated the conservation paradigm implicit in the notion of intangible cultural heritage by objectifying lived experience into something static and reified. The ephemerality of sound means that it is only through sound recording that we preserve our acoustic heritage and that it is often a poor relation to the artefact and the digital image in heritage studies and museology. Notwithstanding notable exceptions, especially in the fields of natural sciences, ethnographic sound recording archives tend to be biased towards the spoken voice and dominated by aural history accounts. Despite the growth in sound libraries and collections, documenting our sonic intangible cultural heritage —whether artefacts, activities or the acoustics of the environments we inhabit— remains a relatively low priority.

Writing from the perspective of a former sound designer for the museum sector and building upon two previous essays that explore the spatial affordances of the loudspeaker (Prior, 2016, and Prior, 2020), this paper concerns the use of the loudspeaker in the context of museum and gallery spaces. It discusses the durable form of the conventional speaker and asserts that despite their ubiquity, speakers remain an under-utilised and often misunderstood media in heritage curation because they are so rarely used in ways idiomatic to their inherent behavioural characteristics.

Unlike video content, which fully dominates the screen on which it is viewed, and is framed by definitive borders, loudspeakers always present their content as an augmentation of an existing space, layering one reality upon another. Because this is not an attribute of the reproduction technology, but a characteristic of the medium of sound itself, this process of augmentation is seamless. Had speakers evolved in a period in which augmented reality was already being explored, these affordances might have informed their development. However, theirs is an older history which saw the conventional speaker as we know it evolve to aspire to ideals much closer to that of virtual reality, while being singularly ill-suited to that ideal.

While sound art has problematised the form of the loudspeaker: deconstructing it, multiplying it, treating as a sculptural object; for most other uses, its form has remained remarkably durable and its use unproblematised. It is this conventional, unexceptional box, that curators have inherited, complete with a set of cultural and aesthetic expectations as to how it might be deployed. Taking sound as a quintessentially ‘augmentable’ medium as a point of departure, in this paper I will outline some of the ways in which sound, mediated through loudspeakers, might find a more idiomatic function in heritage practices, and the museums that play host to them.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: sound, loudspeaker, speaker, museum, mixed reality, virtual reality, augmented reality, ethnography, heritage, museology, sound design,
Subjects: Public Exhibition
Music > Sound Art
Music > Sound Design
Courses by Department: Academy of Music & Theatre Arts > Music
Depositing User: David Prior
Date Deposited: 17 Oct 2023 15:28
Last Modified: 23 Nov 2023 19:45


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