Listening to Museums: Sounds as objects of culture and curatorial care

Listening to Museums: Sounds as objects of culture and curatorial care

PhD Research Degree

John Kannenberg

Completed 2020

This practice-based project begins with an exploration of the acoustic environments of a variety of contemporary museums via field recording and sound mapping. Through a critical listening practice, this mapping leads to a central question: can sounds act as objects analogous to physical objects within museum practice – and if so, what is at stake in creating a museum that only exhibits sounds? Given the interest in collection and protection of intangible culture within contemporary museum practice, as well as the evolving anthropological view of sound as an object of human culture, this project suggests that a re-definition of Pierre Shaeffer’s oft-debated term ‘sound object’ within the context of museum practice may be of use in re-imagining how sounds might be able to function within traditionally object-based museum exhibition practices. Furthermore, the longstanding notion of ‘soundmarks’ – sounds that reoccur within local communities which help to define their unique cultural identity – is explored as a means by which post-industrial sounds such as traffic signals for the visually impaired and those made by public transport, may be considered deserving of protection by museum practitioners. These ideas are then tested via creative practice by establishing an experimental curatorial project, The Museum of Portable Sound (MOPS), an institution dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting sounds as objects of culture and human agency. MOPS displays sounds, collected via the author’s field recording practice, as museological objects that, like the physical objects described by Stephen Greenblatt, ‘resonate’ with the outside world – but also with each other, via their careful selection and sequencing that calls back to the mix tape culture of the late twentieth century. The unconventional form of MOPS – digital audio files on a single mobile phone accompanied by a museum ‘map’ and Gallery Guide – emphasizes social connections between the virtual and the physical. The project presents a viable format via which sounds may be displayed as culture while also interrogating what a museum can be in the twenty first century.


A digital copy of this thesis and supporting documents are available from the UAL Research Online repository.

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