Audio Justice League (English)
The Science Museum, London, is a noisy place. Like others of its kind, it resounds with excited hubbub thanks to its enormous popularity as a family museum. Unlike art galleries, where exhibits have traditionally been silent, science and technology museums are also full of things that once made a tremendous racket. In contrast to their noisy visitors, these artefacts are usually silenced in the museum, their sounds deadened by the demands of preservation and the practicalities of display. Artefacts in glass cases become objects of visual contemplation only, despite having previously been heard, handled and sensed in other ways. New approaches to museum materiality have begun to address the question of tactility (Howes, 2014), but the sonic dimensions of museum objects have not yet received the same kind of attention, despite the relevance to science and technology museums of a new sound studies scholarship pointing to sound control and reproduction as a central feature in the story of modern technological revolution (e.g. Sterne, 2003), and to hearing as a fundamental component of the social reception of technology (e.g. Bijsterveld, 2008). To tell the story of modern science and technology, in other words, we need to make more of a noise. The problem of how to re-sound the history of science and technology in the museum is multi-faceted and only partly addressed using digital audio, which cannot ultimately do justice to pre-digital sound technologies and sonic experiences. New approaches to multi-sensory engagement in museums, and particularly new techniques for ‘soundtracking’ exhibitions (Bubaris, 2014), point to some ways forward, but my approach in this article is to consider the question of sound not from a practical point of view, but rather from a critical-historical one, though I suggest that the latter should pre-figure the former. In response to the new museums studies literature that champions sound as a technique of visitor engagement, I draw upon the ‘ways of seeing’ approach that has been so fruitfully applied to the visual culture of museums (Bennett, 2011; Rees Leahy, 2014) to discuss how exhibitions also organise and promote ways of hearing. To do this, I take the example of a 1935 Science Museum temporary exhibition on Noise Abatement – described in newspaper coverage at the time as a ‘chamber of noise horrors’ – as my case study. My analysis of this exhibition adds further weight to Jennifer Rich’s argument (in this issue) that the Science Museum has a long, though sometimes controversial, tradition of engaging its visitors through the medium of sound (see also Rich, 2016). I will argue that although it may certainly be a useful medium for generating new kinds of engagement in museums, because sound is routinely invested with affective-ideological power and organised for social purposes, its use in museums must be subject to critical as well as to practical consideration. Analysing past museum practice within the terrain of a wider history of sound can help us to think in more sophisticated ways about what sound is and about what sound does. The 1935 Noise Abatement exhibition provides a useful case study because it was staged at a time when urban and technological noise was being invested with ideological significance as part of a cultural conflict over scientific and technological progress in which class-bound notions of acoustic civilization were being promoted as norms for the nation (Mansell, 2017). Sound is thus not merely an illustrative tool in the science and technology museum, but an inherent component of technology’s vibrant history. The first section of the article sets out my argument about ‘ways of hearing’ in relation to existing museum studies literature on sound. The second section introduces the organisation that staged the 1935 exhibition, the Anti-Noise League, and the historical contexts, and class-informed ‘ways of hearing’, in which it operated. The third section examines the use and representation of sound at the 1935 exhibition. It points out that sound has already had a place in exhibition practice, and makes an argument for incorporating historical ways of hearing into our understanding of the history and material culture of technology.
audio Justice League (English)