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): http://www.york.ac.uk/ipup/projects/audiences/science.html

Ministry of Curiosity’s blog on museums on Spotify: http://theministryofcuriosity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/prancing-to-playlists-museums-on-spotify.html

The Clash online exhibition or Radio Show: http://www.theclash.com/thisisradioclash/

V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ podcast: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/v-and-a-podcast-curating-pop-music/

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Enfield Exchange project

Enfield Exchange in Dugdale Centre, Enfield

How many phone numbers do you remember? Probably not many. Personally, since I started to use a mobile phone in my teens I rarely remember numbers. I just have to remember names or the name I’ve allocated a particular number (did I save my local hairdressers number under ‘hairdressers’ or its business name?). Our phones are becoming so intelligent that soon I don’t think I’ll even have to remember these small details, I’ll just take it out of my pocket and say I want a haircut and it’ll probably phone and make an appointment for me.

I digress, my main point is that in a short amount of time technology has developed to an astounding degree and though it is easy to forget, numbers are still a central part of this. Nothing can make this point more obvious than a large section of a manual telephone exchange. Manual telephone exchanges provided the friendly voice that introduced many to a telephone. They provided an immediate voice when a subscriber picked up the phone and helpfully asked ‘Number Please?’ ready and willing to connect your call to the number you required.

Recently a piece of Enfield’s telecommunications history, a section of the manual exchange, has returned in the hope of sparking memories and connecting those memories with one of the county’s largest depositories of the history of science, the Science Museum. This exchange was the last manual exchange in Greater London and was taken out in the 1960s. So there are people still alive who manually connected calls and could be using phone you don’t even have to touch to make a call.

It’s return is part of a Science Museum led project that is being hosted by the Enfield Museum service and hopes to find stories related to the old Enfield manual exchange. Through events, a website and a facebook page they want to those local stories to come alive – have a look and pass on the details to anyone you think would be interested, or just pop down to the Dugdale Centre and see the exchange for yourself.

Enfield Exchange project webiste: http://enfieldexchange.org.uk/

Enfield Exchange Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Enfield-Exchange/307731015977708?ref=tn_tnmn

Enfield Museum Service: http://www.enfield.gov.uk/museum