Music and Museums

David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A

For a number of months ideas about music and museums have been floating around my head. I think it was the David Bowie Is exhibition, at the V&A, that kickstarted this process and since a jumble of ideas and observations have been bouncing around. This blog is an attempt to make some sense out of them.

Now, the obvious difficulty in the relationship between museums and music is that music is not a thing. It is not a tactile object we can grab hold of and put on a wall, in a case or on a plinth. It adds to our lives in so many ways, but is difficult to physically contain and present.

Possibly because of this I think one of the most fascinating areas of historical research is in the history of music. BBC Radio 4 made a wonderful documentary series called Noise: A Human History on the history of sound, and through that I have come to understand that music has always been an important part of human communication. It satisfies a basic human need. I didn’t manage to catch all of the series, but what I did I really enjoyed, and I think part of its success was because it was on radio. A medium devoted to noise, I would listen to it before going to sleep so I could relax and dedicate my ears to it.

Also, the recent BBC season on the Sound of Cinema is fantastic. I’ve particularly enjoyed Neil Brand’s series The Music that Made the Movies for drawing out the emotive qualities and value music brings to images, and its use can completely change our understanding of a scene. (My personal favourite was regarding a scene in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ where music that was deemed too sexually suggestive had to be replaced by sentimental strings for public release.)

Lates at the Science Museum, image from DCMS blog

However, TV and radio are multimedia channels, designed to carry music. A museum is not one of these places. Music is more often seen in a museum space during a function, whether that be a private hire or, increasingly, a Lates. (I find silent discos at Lates interesting as juxtaposing the traditional quiet atmosphere with rebellious dancing). Exhibitions might have a soundscape, adding to the atmosphere, but not really a soundtrack.

This is where the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition really interested me. I thought the headphones that picked up sensors and started playing music (and sometimes speech for extra content) in different places really worked. Every now and again I felt I had missed something or the signal didn’t seem very strong, but the technique came into its own in the section projecting different Bowie concerts. Depending where you sat determined which concert you heard, and there were normally three playing on a different wall simultaneously. I got the impression people had been, and could be, there for hours.

In the other areas of the exhibition I did feel that the music added to the objects, particularly costume and other memorabilia. It added a layer of context that text could not bring. Nonetheless, in this blockbuster exhibition it was the marriage of sound and visual that worked best for me.

The Clash exhibition, Berwick Street

The Clash exhibition, Berwick Street

In stark contrast to the Bowie exhibition (for which I did queue for a number of hours), a few weeks ago I walked into an exhibition on Berwick Street, depicting the career of one of my all time favourite bands, The Clash.

This was not in an accredited museum, but was in a small shop just off Oxford Street. The budget for The Clash exhibition was considerably lower, and rather than getting your own headset, the band’s music were playing out of speakers. This gave the exhibition a bit more of a community feel to it, as you caught the eye of a fellow fan singing along whilst peering into the glass letters that spelt out, you guessed it, The Clash, to see their memorabilia. Similar to the Bowie exhibition, some of the most interesting objects, for me, were the books and record sleeves that had a influence on their work amongst the gig paraphernalia and hand-written song lyrics.

In a way both exhibitions suited each artist, Bowie’s was considerably more dramatic and grand, where as The Clash was a bit more do-it-yourself. Though both had really interesting techniques to convey their message, I loved the cases displaying The Clash’s guitars were made to look like see-through flight cases. Also the online presence for each exhibition is interesting, the V&A produced a thoughtful podcast that discussed the challenges of curating the exhibition, see a link here. The Clash curated an online exhibition complete with interviews and music, streemed through Spotify.

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003).  Copyright: Science Museum

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003). Copyright: Science Museum

For these exhibitions music is central and needed music to animate their objects. Similarly to this, my first museum volunteer role was at the Handel House Museum and I’ve always loved that they hold recitals there. Music can bring topics to life in other ways, and I have to mention the Science Museum’s Oramics and Electronic Music project and exhibition. This was the first project in the Science Museum’s Public History department and I think it worked so well due to the music element. The type of music brought together enthusiasts who had a shared love and though the exhibition was clearly important, the project also had a strong online presence which widened the community and build enthusiasm for the project, partly helped by a competition for people to create their own from a number of samples.

Music can bring a space and history to life. It also had the power to evoke unique reactions – songs can have very personal meanings for people.

But could music work for exhibitions that are unrelated to the practice or performance of music?

I think it could. The idea first occurred to me on a train listening to Everything Everything album ‘Arc’, and I had images of playing it in a exhibition planning meeting saying “I want this exhibition to make people feel like this.” (Yeah, these are my daydreams). I have also since discovered that some museums and archives have their own Spotify playlists. The Ministry of Curiosity’s blog discusses the subject here. I think this is a fantastic idea. Many of these lists are based on theme – songs related to libraries, songs related to London etc. But this could perhaps work with emotions as well? I want this exhibition to make people angry, happy or sad. Or perhaps to add an extra layer of context? Source and record songs that would have been sung locally, from execution ballads to music hall. Or as with cinema could pop music also work to build atmosphere and extra meaning to our visual displays?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on music in museums. I think the possibilities for music in museums are endless, so here’s to more music in museums!

Useful links:

Here is a link to a conference report in which Merel van deer Vaart talks about the project (opens a PDF):

Ministry of Curiosity’s blog on museums on Spotify:

The Clash online exhibition or Radio Show:

V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ podcast:


9 Responses to Music and Museums

  1. I was at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw recently, and struck by how they have to grapple with difficulties similar to science museums – the stuff they’re trying to convey is invisible, transient and hard to pin down the meaning of. The objects are cultures around the stuff they’re trying to convey, but not the thing itself. The Chopin Museum did have an additional layer in that it was biographical, rather than strictly about the music, and that helped.

    • kathleenmcil says:

      Wow, great to hear about the Chopin Museum. I agree, one of the advantages of biography is being able to show external factors that can influence someone’s character and life which in turn can reflect in other aspects of their life. That helped with the Bowie and Clash exhibitions, the hint of the outside factors and influence. In the Clash exhibition there was an LP for Oliver the Musical and then a book on the Sandinista movement, subtle but effective.

  2. Some people don’t like music, some people like some music – I used to have a pupil who would bang his head against the table if he didn’t like the music – it was as if the music hurt him. If he approved of the music he was transported to heaven. Some people don’t like music in public.

    Using music in museums could add sooo much to an experience, especially emotionally.

    It could easily alienate some and detract from their experience. When using your eyes you can scan around and focus on what is of interest. With sound you can only choose if its not a general broadcast i.e. with the magic Bowie headphones as mentioned, or sound booths or headphones connected to site or personal mobile devices – Everyone’s a winner

    • kathleenmcil says:

      Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right and you couldn’t create a better image than the pupil banging his head on the table to demonstrate how personal and emotive music choice is. Using music in an exhibition, especially if it is not about that musical subject, would have to be a very carefully considered decision.
      That’s a good point about people being attracted to objects, and yes that’s a great way to use the sort of headphones at the Bowie exhibition. Though at that exhibition I found myself deciding on my movements based on what I heard, rather than because of the objects. Maybe the music was too powerful in that respect.
      Perhaps with a personal device you can choose from a number of playlists, or bluetooth could alert you to a chosen soundtrack for a particular case or object. Could the use of oral histories, or a type of audio guide within it also be useful or distracting? I suppose if you had the choice to pick up a headset or download something each person would be given the option.
      Thanks, I found your points really useful!

  3. In northern Italy earlier this year I visited a couple of museums with large collections of musical instruments. As a singer and former trombonist they seemed rather sad places in some ways, lots of instruments, silent and in glass cases. On one of the visits in Cremona, someone came in unlocked a case, took out the gorgeous Stradivarius violin – and then took it off into another room away from the public to play it (which seemed rather a missed opportunity). Perhaps a bit more specific than the question you’re posing, but these instances certainly seemed like an exhibition that was crying out for the ability to actually hear the instruments – there was plenty of written information, but that only takes you so far.

    I don’t know whether collections like the Horniman’s ( do more, form a quick look around the website it looks like they might. I believe that some of the instruments in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands can be played on (

    The National Portrait Gallery is also doing some interesting things with music, it now even has a choir in residence, I don’t know if their forthcoming display on Benjamin Britten ( will have associated music, the recent exhibition at the British Library did give some opportunity to listen to extracts, or Britten or associates talking about the music in their own words.

    There was an interesting piece on Radio 3 earlier this week about a forthcoming exhibition at the National Gallery, Facing the Modern, Viennese portraits from the early 20th Century, including one by Arnold Schoenberg (a self-portrait)

    • kathleenmcil says:

      Thanks so much for the comment and the really useful links. I think that’s always a difficultly in the display of objects that were created with a purpose, whether that be to create music or even a carpentry tool – how do we convey the significance of something without using it?

      With musical instruments the sound they create does seem to be an obvious way to demonstrate another dimension to their story. As I think I mentioned in the blog, one of the things I loved about the Handel House Museum was that they hosted recitals, but I can’t remember if museum object instruments are used in these, but a harpsichord was definitely played whilst I was there. Looking at their events I think people often bring their own instruments to play:

      It’s interesting that you have a personal response to the lonely displayed instruments in cases due to your background as a musician and singer – I wonder how much museums could interact with visitors such as yourself with skills and interest in the objects. Playing the music and hosting recitals is definitely one way. But would you want to use them or something similar – could you play or sing along if the music was put out? Perhaps a classical karaoke booth? I’d be interested in what the Horniman does do, as I think you’re right and they probably do more. I will investigate!

      Also thanks so much for the link to the NPG’s Choir in resident, I hadn’t heard of that at all – and can’t wait to try and catch them in action. What a brilliant idea!

      The British Library is also a good point, they have such a wonderful sound library, I wonder how much it is used outside of researchers and if exhibitions outside of the British Library use them. It’s a fantastic resource.

      Finally thanks for the tip on the Radio 3 programme. I have it on now as I type.


      • Carpentry tools are an interesting example – several of the Italian museums also had a variety of wood working tools on show as, of course, they are vital in the manufacture of violins and other stringed instruments (they also had some original Stradivarius paper patterns for the various parts which go to make up instruments). There were some step-by-step photos of the process, and possibly even a video, which helped, and in fact as you wander around the town of Cremona there several luthier’s workshops where instruments are still made, most of which seemed to do a certain amount of demonstration visits and the like.

      • I’ve just remembered this Guardian piece from earlier in the year about playing one of the Ashmolean’s Strads

      • kathleenmcil says:

        What a lovely article, and evidence of the power of playing an instrument. Breaking the mystique of is that instrument really any better than another – answer clearly yes!
        Thanks again!

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