Tuesday, March 8, 2011

That sounds interesting

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

I love to hear an exhibition. I suspect this may not be true for everyone, but I really like experiences that have a soundtrack.

For me, visiting an exhibition is not dissimilar to watching a movie. Both require me to become immersed in a story or setting – often one that is far from my day to day existence. Both tell a story, and both can benefit powerfully from the skilful application of music.

It was quite a shock to me to realize how powerful sound in exhibitions can be. Eons ago, I worked on an exhibition of ‘animatronic’ prehistoric beasts. I fear that we may have permanently scarred a generation of young children. If you were between 3 and 5 years old there was a 50/50 chance you’d even make it inside the exhibition – parents were seen rushing from the show with wailing toddlers, hands were locked over ears. It was the sound of ice age wind that had just as much impact as the animals themselves. I hereby apologize to those Edmontonians who are now 24 to 27 years old and cannot understand why the sound of icy wind makes them quite so uneasy.

Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum

Encountering a prehistoric beast at the Royal BC Museum today can also be rather intimidating for very young visitors. Our mammoth is magnificent to behold, but it is the low elephantine rumbling to which very young visitors respond. Have a listen: http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Nat_Hist_Gall/ice_age_sounds.aspx

But sound is one thing… a soundtrack is another. Hollywood directors know well the way in which music can heighten emotional reaction to what is being presented – would the Social Network be as compelling without Trent Reznor’s score? So why is this so seldom practiced in exhibitions? I’m not suggesting the Doors’ The End in the Climate Change gallery, but rather the use of subtle, atmospheric music to reinforce the message and to help the visitor to a receptive frame of mind.

Visitors relaxing in Brian Eno's exhibition, 77 Million Paintings

77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno at the Glenbow in Calgary this month is perhaps the epitome of sound and visual combining equally in the visitor experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ke9NbpHQdec

When we present our next big touring exhibition this December, it will have a lovely musical and sound effect ‘wash.’ It will be fun to ask visitors whether this enhanced their visit… or indeed whether they noticed it at all. Stay tuned.

And… as a musical postscript, David Mattison [a former staffer at the Royal BC Museum] was inspired by our recent exhibition, Aliens Among Us to compose a piece of music in its honour: http://soundcloud.com/trancedoctor/alien-species-invade-bc-full

Tim Willis

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The Royal BC Museum is located in Victoria, British Columbia on Canada's west coast. We preserve BC's human and natural history and share it with the world. How do we do that? That's what this blog is about.

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