Open Thread: How Do You Feel About Music in Museums?

Should museums play music – in public spaces and or in galleries? If so, how should they determine what to play?

I asked this question on Facebook and Twitter, and the responses have been varied and fascinating. So I thought I’d open it up to the Museum 2.0 community, in hopes that we’ll get some juicy international perspectives.

I’m conflicted on this issue.
Pros for music:
  • Music helps designers frame the atmosphere for the intended experience at the museum. You can pick music that helps people get into a reflective, active, or social mood–whatever you are trying to achieve.
  • A totally quiet, empty space can feel uncomfortable. Many visitors to our small museum have commented that they wish there was some music playing, and I assume that they believe it would help them have a more enjoyable experience.
  • A low level of sound (music and or speaking) can provide a hum that helps people feel relaxed about talking in the museum. If it’s not silent by design, people are more likely to override their “shussh!” expectations and talk.
Cons for music:
  • While silence can be oppressive, music can be distracting.
  • You can’t please everyone. One person’s favorite song makes another person want to stab themselves in the eye with a pencil. Most museums are trying to please everyone. They’re not comfortable tailoring to an audience and saying “we’re a jazz kind of place,” or “we’re a punk kind of place” the way a retail establishment would.
  • Licensing fees. This shouldn’t be a show stopper for a small institution that flies under the radar, but it’s certainly worth considering.
  • Repetitive music annoys staff. While I’m sensitive to this issue, I do not think it should be a serious factor in making a decision about this.
Lots of people online have weighed in with their “love it”s and “hate it”s. What I’d love to hear more of are reflections based on research and also clever ideas for HOW to use music if at all. Some of my favorite ideas that people have mentioned:
  • having a sound curator and commissioning soundscapes for exhibitions (the City Museum in Arhus does this)
  • inviting visitors to curate the tracklist
  • sound installations in unusual places, like the elevator
  • an experiment on how “incongruous” music might impact a viewing experience – i.e. techno in the art museum. I could imagine the same piece with a wildly varied soundtrack and asking people to talk about their response based on the song played.
  • and of course, who could forget Machine Project’s charming “personal audio tour” in which a visitor plugs his/her headphones into a guy with an electric guitar who follows the visitor around?
How have you seen music used effectively or disastrously in museums? What experiments or ideas would you like to try?


Museum 2.0

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