The Sound of Reopening
Empty halls, quiet spaces, lights off, echoes… that is the vision we have of the “closed” museum during the recent lockdown. This was confirmed by museum guards in April, who explained that looking after closed museums was strangely “eerie”. Over the past few weeks, museums are ecstatic to share that they will be reopening, with a great “hurrah” and celebration. It is indeed wonderful, and according to a recent Vastari survey, nearly 65% of museums are planning to be open again in the coming month.
But for many, the lockdown was not silent and empty. Lockdown was actually a time to discover what the museum “sounds” like, when it’s not a silent space where your footsteps echo through the halls. Museum social media pages crowdsourced soundtracks from their audiences, and uncovered a new dimension to their museum experience - take a look at this list from the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lyon. With the doors closed, museums were forced to be inventive to bring their objects alive to audiences.
Popular culture has infiltrated the way museums can sound in fresh and unique ways. The Uffizi Gallery let its marketing team be inventive with the collection using the app “TikTok” and created quite a sensation over the lockdown period. Having a Drake "In my Feelings" serenade a 19th century sculpture is probably quite a stretch for some, but can awaken the senses and has the potential to relay the sculpture’s sentiments to a new generation of viewers.
Museum shutdowns have led to the discovery of the underutilized sense of sound and its role in experience creating. As tactile displays may need to be rethought in terms of health and safety once museums reopen; music and sound have the potential to take center stage in a museum looking to create well rounded interactive and immersive experiences for their new visitors.
In fact, some museums that focus on musical content already had exhibitions with a “soundtrack”. Places like the Philharmonie de Paris Musee de la Musique and the Hoogsteder Museum Foundation's Music and Dancing in the Golden Age exhibition that just opened at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College have playlists/sounds alongside their art, as do the exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum that focused on sound, such as the Pink Floyd retrospective exhibition produced in conjunction with Sennheiser. In the case of the Hoogsteder Museum Foundation, they collaborated with the Hague Conservatory for their selection of art-linked soundtracks.
Artists over the lockdown have also been thinking about this same idea. Art in America’s newsletter last week explored how experimental sound artists are being creative during the lockdown with a Bandcamp “Amplify 2020: Quarantine” compilation of works created during lockdown by their community. In the realm of new media art, these types of works thrive during isolation periods, while they have struggled in the past to be noticed in the physical contemporary art museum environment.
Some apps are also developing new features to cater to collective listening, which could be useful for museums in their quest for implementing interactivity. In May, Spotify released a “Group Session” feature that allows multiple people to listen at the same time. Smartify also developed a Social Distancing toolkit for its audio tours in order to help museums think with innovative solutions to the timed entries and “new visitor journey” in a world prepared for the impact of pandemics. Audio input is essential in these instances.
Museums around the world are now slowly opening up again, looking quite different, with longer queues, one way traffic and touch-free displays. With the power of sound, could there be another dimension to how these spaces come back to life? The French word for opening is “ouverture” after all.