Saturday, April 16, 2016

Listen Up! What's the Sound of Your Museum? Your Mission?

This week's guest post is by Dave Lewis, one of my 2016 mentees.  This post came about through one of our monthly conversations and also reminded me of a conversation I had while traveling this winter in Italy.  The sound of Italy to me:  the noise of multiple coffee saucers make on a counter, followed by the clink of the spoons that always follows.  What's the sound of places you love?

What is the sound of your museum? Your mission statement? Your community? How is the auditory represented in your collections and your exhibits?

As someone who works in a very sound-focused museum, I’m admittedly a bit biased on these questions. I have the privilege of working at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum  a museum that takes sound seriously. We are built around a 1927 recording session that happened in the town of Bristol, VA/TN (we straddle the state line) that helped introduce figures like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to the listening public and set the stage for what would later be the country music industry. We have audio experiences throughout the museum - in films, in ambient audio to accompany our exhibits, in a sing-along booth, in our in-house radio station WBCM RadioBristol, and in more solitary, headphone-based audio experiences. We also have a good deal of legacy audio and quite a few vintage playback machines in our collections.

So, I’m a bit biased. I love audio: I love preserving it and finding interesting ways to use it in our exhibits.

Sound can be evocative, though I think most of us know this, intuitively. I’m sure you have a song that reminds you of a first love (that’s the Indigo Girls 1,200 Curfews live album for me), or some other significant event in your life. And we are, at some level, wired to have these kinds of responses to sound. Sound helped humans track prey, run from predators, and locate each other through years of evolutionary change - hearing was of vital importance. We still process many of our aural stimuli pre-cognitively, that is, without any conscious thought. This kind of pre-attentive processing is what we experience when we bite into a delicious dessert, for example, or see a particularly arresting painting for the first time. Sound can easily do things photographs, descriptive panels, and informational text can’t always do: it can make us, if only for a moment, give in to experience, feeling, and emotion rather than reason and logic.

So, how can we begin to document and collect sound - as well as use it - in ways that are in keeping with our varied missions (as well as our varied budgets, staffing sizes, etc.)? I offer a few suggestions here, but I (and Linda!) would like to hear yours, too.

First, consider how any sound you collect or use - just like any other kinds of objects you collect - does work for your museum’s core mission. For some museums that connection might be tenuous - perhaps audio that inspired or reflects the artistic style of a certain time or place. But for others, particularly local history museums, I think there is a more pressing need for strategic collecting.

What does your main street sound like now? What did it sound like ten years ago? What about an afternoon at a favorite local hangout? Or an afternoon at Kmart in 1988? Even if you can access something (like the lovely Kmart recordings) on the Internet now, particularly sites like YouTube, that content is fleeting. If an organization goes under or a video is pulled, it’s gone - poof! - often with no warning. This is work we can’t rely on others to do for us, though working with other community organizations like libraries, universities, folklife organizations, and music clubs, could make this work more possible.

What kinds of sounds does your community make that speak to its fabric and that aren’t being systematically captured and stored? Is someone attentively archiving recordings of your community band, community choir, or resident chamber ensemble? For that matter, are you, as an institution, recording events that you produce? If not, and if you aren’t sure how to start, take a look at this guide put out by the Vermont Folklife Center. It can help get you and your organization started on purchasing a user-friendly, budget-friendly audio recording setup. Certainly, though, most of us don’t have time to walk around town with an audio recorder. But we can arrange a crowd sourcing event like a History Harvest or oral history sessions to capture some of that audio.

Second, what audio do you already have, and what kind of shape is it in? Only the largest, most robust museums need even a part-time A/V archivist, but there are sensible steps any collection manager can take to prolong the life of most any audio format, and to make a passable digital copy. Much of the tape- and disc-based audio that we have is undergoing pretty catastrophic degradation due to internal chemical instability and isn’t easily reversible. There are solutions for almost all price points, but some of them may involve a triage-type approach, digitizing the most useful first, and doing the rest as you’re able. The Association for Recorded Sound Collections has published a [guide to audio preservation designed especially for folks with little to no audio experience. And there are grants, like this one from CLIR to support digitization projects.

There are a myriad of issues that your organization needs to think about, of course - budget, staff time, and your ability to reasonably preserve all of your objects (especially digital ones!). But collecting, preserving, and using audio can make visiting our museums — and using our collections — a more engaging, accessible, and multi-sensory experience.

Images courtesy of the Birthplace of Country Music, David J, and Daniele Napolitano.

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