Music in Interpretation

Jeanice asked me before Christmas about academic study of how music impacts heritage interpretation. My first response was “there is none” (and I stand by that), but it did make me dig out a couple of papers that I’d found and not included in my literature review. And on reflection, I think I may indeed go back an add one of them in.

The first was Musical Technology and the Interpretation of Heritage, a conference keynote speech given by Keith Swanwick, and published in 2001 by the International Journal of Music Education. That there publication is the clue that this isn’t really about heritage interpretation (as I’m defining it) at all, but rather about cultural transmission through music, and especially through music teaching. I left it in my notes because it references information and digital technology but, re-reading it for Jeanice, I realise it doesn’t do anything with that reference, apart from equating music itself with ICT as a mode of cultural transmission.

There’s some discussion of compositions created with cultural transmission as an intent, which may be interesting for some later study, but it doesn’t give the overview of music as museum/cultural heritage-site media that the title promised.

More interesting is this paper, from the V&A’s on-line research journal. The paper explores the development of a collaborative project between the Royal College of Music and the V&A, involving new recordings of period music for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The first thing that strikes me is that the galleries opened in 2009, and yet the project was conceived in 2002. Sometimes I wish I worked for an organisation that gave such projects a similar about of time to gestate.

Drawing on all their front end evaluation, and the debates on learning styles and segmentation that have taken place over the years, the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries team were keen to offer visitors a “multi-sensory framework […] incorporating opportunities for tactile experience, active hands-on learning and varied strategies for helping visitors to decode medieval and Renaissance art actively.” This included audio as well as film and other digital media.

This is where the quote that, on reflection, I think I should at the very least include in my literature review. It comes from a footnote, and usefully sums up my fruitless search for literature on music in cultural heritage sites:

Music in museums has not been the focus of detailed study or writing.

The article goes on to round up various ways in which music is used in (general, not museums of music) interpretation, for example, places where popular music of the twentieth century is used to help immerse visitors in a particular decade. Of particular interest is The Book of the Dead: Journey to the Afterlife, a British Museum exhibition for which, “…a musical soundtrack was commissioned to heighten emotional effect at a key moment in the exhibition narrative.” I might have to try and find out more about that commission.

The V&A actually included two exhibitions in their music making. While the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries were being developed, the museum ran a temporary exhibition called At Home In Renaissance Italy, for which 24 pieces were recorded and played ambiently in rotation. “Evaluations demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive response to the music from the visitor’s point of view” but also highlighted some of the problems, not least of which was that some people (especially staff who have to hear it non-stop) really don’t like ambient music. This evaluation informed how the music project developed for the permanent gallery.

The plan had been to use pre-existing recordings “that could help visitors to imagine the medieval and Renaissance worlds and to convey emotion and feeling.” But as the curatorial research developed, it became apparent that there were opportunities to use music that hadn’t previously been recorded, but that was directly connected to the objects and stories of the exhibition. Because “evaluation of audio provision in the V&A’s British Galleries demonstrated that audio-tracks were less effective without a strong connection to immediately adjacent objects or displays” the museum decided upon benches equipped with touch-screens and good quality headphones as “audio-points” where a user could sit a browse music related to what they could see in front of them. Each piece faded out after a minute or two, to ensure a reasonable rate of churn of listeners, but the complete pieces were available from the V&A website, for those that wished to listen to them complete.

Sadly the evaluation had too wide a remit to explore in depth visitors’ responses to the music. All they could say was that it “showed that a high percentage of users engage with the audio-points, a strong indication that they are valued by visitors.” I would have liked to have discovered how well the music achieved their aims of conveying emotion and feeling. They do conclude however that “The increasing ownership of smartphones and MP3 players is rapidly increasing the options for museums to deliver music in gallery spaces and the number of ways in which visitors can choose to engage with it.”

So we need to see some more research about how its used an its impact on the visitor experience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s