What if… we asked visitors to sound design works of art?

Sound design in museums is not a new idea. Visit the Rubin Museum and the sound of monks chanting completes their immersive contextual display of Tibetan shrine objects. Two summers ago, the MFA’s Hippie Chic exhibition included a jukebox, allowing visitors to play their retro anthems, sparking rampant nostalgia and some fantastic intergenerational bonding. My own museum, the Portland Art Museum, enhanced its run of Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music by drawing upon the talents of local musicians who specialize in recreating the sounds of the baroque era. (Perks of working in Portland!) More recently, we installed The Enclave, a video piece by Richard Mosse whose immersive sound at an incredible volume is as emotionally overpowering as his neon-pink imagery of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In each of these experiences, sound was used to create deeper connections between the visual and the visitor. That connection could be whimsical, it could be nostalgic, it could be immersive, it could be violent. They were all incredibly successful projects.

But in each, the visitor was a passive recipient. Participation was limited to selecting a track on the jukebox, or within the audio guide. The message was predetermined.

Over the past few months, I’ve been completing a sound design course at the Northwest Film Center. We were tossed a variety of clips: animations, live action video, and so forth, stripped of their sounds and asked to rebuild them. Even working from the same library, and even when limited to a very small set of clips, we came up with radically different interpretations.

For example, we worked with this fantastic short by Yum Yum.

Take away David Kamp’s happy-go-lucky music and whistling, plus some tire squeaks and we move from an imperturbable chap to a frustrated urbanite. I added a crash just before he whips his head out the window, giving us a fender bender. A cacophony of birds chirping, sheep bleating, and dogs barking made this 30 second experience irritating beyond belief, just to watch!

Now consider Edward Hopper’s A Room in Brooklyn.

Edward Hopper, Room in Brooklyn, 1932. Oil on Canvas. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 35.66.

Its home, the MFA Boston, already has a great interactive built around this piece. Using a touchscreen, you can raise or lower the blinds, swap over the vase of flowers for a telephone, add another figure or a dog and so forth. You can even take the scene out of Brooklyn. Doing so changes the mood immediately, and it’s a great exercise in understanding the significance of composition.

What would allowing visitors to add sound do? Well, imagine this scene silent, perhaps with just the creak of her rocking chair. Then imagine it with far off street noise. A wailing siren and a screaming baby. The sound of an argument right behind her. The noise of her heart beating in our ears. Birds, chirping outside.

Now imagine any of these in combination: the contrast of the heartbeat and the birds could create a sense of intense existential anxiety. The rocking chair, wailing baby and distant street noise would turn her solitary stare into a familiar maternal moment.

In this process, the visitor is not asked to change the image in order to get more out of the experience. They are asked to keep looking, to find more in what is already there. As they play, adding or removing sounds, they see notice different things, reflect on what “fits” and why. They develop a personal interpretation of the painting, based in close looking at the object itself.  (There’s no need for this to happen with a reproduction, the station could be placed directly below a painting to encourage direct visual referencing.) The technology is an invitation and an example of what they could do in their own head for any work of art in any museum. Their imagination is, in fact, more limited.

It also meets my favorite criteria for a participatory station. The question that this exercise poses to the visitors, What does it sound like in this painting?, is one to which their answer is actually interesting and significant to others. In my own sound design class, hearing fifteen interpretations of the same clip in a row was fascinating. Skilled or unskilled, polished or unpolished, the ideas were still transmissible. Even completely asynchronous sound, which one classmate repeatedly pursued, was fascinating: bells instead of footsteps, cymbals for water droplets.

Does this sound too ambitious? Too technical? Too much effort for visitors? I think if it does, we underestimate our public. In their formative evaluation for The Science Behind Pixar, the Museum of Science, Boston, found that visitors engaged deeply with what were essentially skinned pro-tools like AutoCad. Which throws in an extra plus to this project: organic STEAM!

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