The way museums curate both their permanent collections and their temporary exhibitions has undergone significant changes since the last decades of the 20th century, allowing visitors to establish dialogues with the objects, artefacts and works of art exhibited in unheard-of ways. The most recent developments in the fields of interactive digital media, 3D, virtual and augmented-reality have become a fashionable feature for an increasing number of institutions. They attract to the once silent exhibition halls sections of the general public who may be more familiar with the videogame and the theme-park cultures than with the traditional art-book or museum catalogue.
The cuts resulting from the 2009 economic crisis and the lack of adequate patronage laws in several European countries have left profound traces in their cultural policies as well. While policies seeking to increase the popularity of museums may be beneficial –and, often, necessary- to these institutions’ balance sheet and income statements, aspects such as the requirement of silence allowing concentration on a more reflective kind of visit are too often disregarded, especially in the largest and most celebrated institutions, such as the Parisian Louvre, the Museo del Prado (Madrid), the British Museum (London), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), the Capitoline Museums and the Mercati di Traiano (Rome), or the Metropolitan Museum (New York) and most particularly during theirrespective peak seasons.
Has silence become a luxury good?
In 2007, the art historian Jean Clair, curator and member of the Académie Française, wondered in his essay Malaise dans le musée what are museums good for nowadays: “the least (the public) understands the images, the more (they) queue in order to glimpse at them”:
« Le plaisir de visiter un musée a fini par succomber à la fatigue de son exercice : la queue, interminable, puis la cohue, les bousculades, le tumulte. Au lieu du paradis, un bruit d’enfer, l’assourdissement d’une salle des pas perdus ou de la verrière d’une piscine-, avec cet autre tourment de l’Enfer, la proximité des autres ». (Clair, 2007)
Implicitly quoting Sartre, Clair describes the infernal experience of being compelled to share exhibition rooms with noisy crowds criss-crossing the space and making it impossible to stand before a painting or a sculpture for some time without being distracted by unwanted presences suddenly invading one’s visual and aural range. “Hell is other people,” according to both Sartre and Clair, and “other people” often means noise.
In the field of the humanities and heritage studies, we have assimilated the commodification of traditional arts as a necessary pre-condition allowing these forms of discourse to survive the impact of digital interactive media while they find ways to translate themselves into them. Globalisation and the powerful emergence of the BRIC economies have made accessible to larger sectors of the society commodities traditionally characterised as luxury goods -including art-, in what Gilles Lipovetsky has called banalisation. Meanwhile, articles which used to be considered necessity goods, such as drinking water, are currently being marketed as luxury items and branded under such captivating names as Acqua di cristallo tributo a Modigliani, or Bling H2O limited edition. In these fast-paced early decades of the 21st century, silence is one of these necessity commodities gradually attaining the category of luxury, while being marketed accordingly.
The long-distance public-transport companies were the first to acknowledge this: The popularisation of mobile phones increasingly compelled passengers to listen to details on everyone else’s private lives as these persons spoke freely –and often quite loudly- on their phones. Train companies such as Eurostar, the Swiss Federal Railways, the French SNCF, the Spanish RENFE or the Italian Trenitalia, as well as Virgin in the US or NSW in Australia, started reserving some of their wagons for their noise- sensitive clients in the first decade of the 21st century. Significantly, most of them encompassed these areas within their business and first-class schemes, hereby marketing silence -just as if it were top- notch water-, as a luxury commodity in its own right.
Sound and silence at the museum.
Not so long ago, museums and temples used to have in common their silent and even devotional characteristics. In a world without selfies -just a couple of decades ago- works of art and religious symbols used to be the indisputable protagonists in their respective spaces. Currently, at least in Europe, historical and monumental Christian temples mark off with a rope reduced enclosures dedicated to what used to be their primary function, that is, to sheer prayer. The rest of the temple remains accessible for what has become its main purpose: Tourism.
Similarly, the updated 21st century museum responds to the budgetary pressure by trying to attract as many visitors as possible, and, in the age of digital knowledge, this can only mean installing screens and feeding the public’s thirst for direct and unmediated digital experiences. Either free or pre-paid downloadable apps are gradually substituting the more traditional audioguides. They allow visitors to get to know the collection at their convenience, not only in the course of their actual walk throughout the exhibition rooms, but, even more importantly, beforehand and afterwards. They are broadly available, many of them are free, and they get constantly updated and rated by users, which contributes to maintaining their quality up to the latest standards. They are also more discreet than traditional hand- held devices, as they can be listened to directly from the customer’s mobile telephone provided with a headphones set, which benefits other visitors as well.
Guided tours are another frequent source of sonorous distraction. While their presence is an obvious sign of healthy life for the museum, they may interfere with other visitors’ preferences. This can nevertheless be mitigated if the guide wears a wireless headset system provided with a microphone and connected to a FM or UHF frequency transmitter -the tour participants will also be wearing earphone headsets connected to individual receivers.
Although the very idea of the fine arts has been traditionally associated with the visual experience, these first decades of the 21st century demand satisfaction for as many senses as possible, in order to fulfil the dream of an artificial reality which may enhance the material one. Sound – its meaningful presence, but also its intentional absence- should therefore play a most relevant role in curatorial practice. The exhibition of certain artefacts, such as historical musical instruments, requires some kind of sound correlate and contextual/musical information in order to be fully understood by the viewer. It is relatively easy for a curator to find sheet music and recordings, or even hiring musicians to play life the actual instruments or their reproductions, at least for repertories dating from the European Middle Ages. When the instruments exhibited date from ancient times or originate from parts of the world whose cultural practices are still insufficiently known, it becomes a more complicated task. Nevertheless, there are ways to reconstruct ancient sounds and musical traditions so that they may make more sense than accompanying exhibitions with musical repertoires completely disconnected thematically and chronologically with the general topic.
Whereas the most extended idea of what a museum is has to do with the building sheltering the collection, especially in the field of archaeology there are many open-air permanent or temporary exhibitions which may be labelled as museums in their own right. Technologies such as downloadable apps and wireless transmitters meet the needs for both kinds of institutions, but the treatment of sound, silence and acoustics needs to be different depending on whether the exhibition is located indoors or outdoors. Recent experiences in 3D and virtual-reality technologies such as those developed by the King’s Visualisation Lab at King’s College (London), by the Department of Computer Science at the University of Southern California -Paul Devebec and his team-, or by the factory Factum Arte (Madrid) are bringing along ground-breaking possibilities for the exhibition of archaeological sites. Revealing and, at times, soul-stirring as these experiences are, their visual bias is, nevertheless, obvious: authors and producers are extremely careful in aspects such as photogrammetry or light reflection, but, whenever they include music, they do not seem as interested in applying similar criteria. Possible solutions and suggestions for this lack of attention to sonorous authenticity in curatorial practice will be discussed at the conference.
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