Museums: A Transformation

Museum exhibition design has undergone a significant overhaul in recent decades. No longer are audiences satisfied by shelves of dusty, decaying objects accompanied by dry text. Instead, they expect and want to see more. They want to be entirely engaged in a sensory experience and to have fun.

Sound provides one way to feed these higher expectations. So powerful is audio to an exhibition that it has the ability to create a wholly immersive atmosphere, one in which visitors can become lost in a unique world with no outside distractions. Many contemporary museums have become aware of this, and so have created events that merge art and audio together.

One example is Tate Britain’s Late at Tate, a collection of events that aim to transform the museum space into a realm of inclusion between visitors and art. Indeed,  museums are now attempting to challenge dominant views of it being an institute of power, and instead evoke and encourage relations with its surrounding communities. This phenomenon can broadly be described as the New Museology. The Late At Tate events, as a perfect example of this, have so far attracted a young and diverse audience. Held at Tate Britain on a bi-monthly basis, the events feature music, film, fashion and live performance.

Tate’s Warp x Tate proved to be a particular success. Featuring live performance artists, the exhibition was based on artwork by Jeremy Deller. Visitors were able to explore the permanent exhibitions on display while being a part of an extra sensory exhibition based on Deller’s piece The History of the World. The piece connects two pivotal historic events, the Miners’ Strike of the 1980s and the birth of rave culture, through brass bands and acid house music.

Why this exhibition worked brilliantly was that art connected so fluidly with  sound and music. Each room made use of different musical themes – originally featuring in Deller’s artworks including Summer of Love and Civil Unrest, they were played by various artists from the Warp Records label. Showing the enhancement that music can bring to art, the audio addition helped to turn The History of The World into a reality, creating something tangible for its audience to explore and to feed their understanding of the history behind the events.

Performance art is similarly growing in popularity, providing another level of “art experience” for those open to new, outlandish displays. There is something to be said for the contrast between a temporary performance space and the evergreen presence of permanent exhibitions – it throws older art into a new light and forces the audience to see with fresh eyes.

Performance art also forces the museum to become a theatre. This should be seen as a positive step forward for current exhibition spaces, as it makes the exhibitions into communal, open spaces for all audiences. It brings contemporary ideas to a building that might otherwise be perceived as being stuck in its ways. This mix of high culture and popular culture in one space is a fascinating blend.

Museums are, indeed, entering a new age. Most want to engage a new and diverse audience, and to do this they must continue to penetrate the popular media. Sound offers an intriguing platform for these new audiences, but also creates an innovative experience for faithful visitors. This new, immersive, sensory experience will continue to gain momentum.

Article by Cheryl Burns

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