Exhibit Sound Design: Museum Feature or Exhibit Enhancement?

(pub. Museum International - Paris UNESCO Vol. 47:1 1995)


When asked to describe a museum, most people will start by speaking of dioramas, display cases, sculptures and paintings. If asked what they learned from a museum exhibit, many people might recall what they've read on one of the display labels or information panels. If the same person is asked what impressed them most about a museum, a whole different descriptive language will come into play. This language is one of emotional involvement, and may travel into the finest detail of a sample of textile, or it may explore the grandness of the museum's architecture.

These different descriptions may not even seem to describe the same place. What will be common to all of these descriptions is that they will use sound in the form of language to illuminate and share an experience. Through sound, the meaning of this experience can be conveyed to an individual displaced in location and time by continents and years or be broadcast instantaneously to millions of people around the globe.

What is perhaps most amazing about sound is that if it is simplified by removing the constraints of language, the sheer expressiveness of a sound can convey the emotional impact of an experience to almost anybody who can hear. Since the medium of sound is so effective in conveying impressions and information, it is advantageous to carefully evaluate the use, content and quality of sound when designing a museum, whose primary intention is to convey impressions and information.

Uses of Sound

Sound has many facets in it's form and application. It is so prevalent in most peoples sensate reality that we sometimes take it for granted. Sound can be used to convey information in facts and figures, transform moods, attract friends or repel hostiles. Sound can act as a vehicle of information between tribes, nationalities and even between species. Once a sound is made, it can completely disappear in just moments, but it can leave an impression that may last for generations. In it's recorded form, it is the only original material that a visitor can take away from the museum in it's entirety without depleting the museums collection, in fact it actually increases in value for a museum as more copies are made. It does so by disseminating the subject material and the museum's name to a larger audience, and by potentially generating revenue from the sale of the copies, in the form of tapes, CDs, records or broadcast production.

Used in an exhibit setting, Sound can be easily changed to modify the context of an exhibit. This may be done to update an exhibit as more accurate information is revealed about the subject, or tailored to dovetail into other museum feature exhibits as the current topic changes. Sound recorded or produced for museums can be edited and reassembled to enhance video and movie productions sponsored by the museum, or performance rights may be sold or granted to outside production companies or institutions for use on independent productions or academic research.

When describing "useful" sound, we most often place it in three categories - Music, Narrative, and Ambient Sound. These three categories are equivalent to the "Music, Dialog and Sound Effects" used in movie production. Any of these three elements may stand alone to create a complete impression, and they all may be used to compliment and enhance the meaning of a visual presentation.

"Useless" sound we categorize as "noise". Though a designer generally tries to avoid noise in the production of exhibit sound, it is an element that must be considered in the design of an exhibit, and may actually prove beneficial in some settings, even if "useful" sound is not a presentation element. This aspect of noise is especially true when considering the "psycho-acoustics" of an exhibit space, which will be considered later in this article.

All categories of sound can either be produced specifically to suit the design intent of an exhibit, or can be recorded from "living" examples of the sound. Sound produced specifically for an exhibit may serve as a "signature" element that is owned solely by the museum which could be used as a promotional tool or even re-packaged and distributed as a fundraising article in the form of tapes, records, compact discs or broadcast productions.

Sound recorded from "living" examples are part of a body of cultural, spiritual, natural and scientific information. This sound material can have significant value as part of a museum's collection. Properly archived, this sound can prove an invaluable resource in the future reconstruction of currently endangered or transforming natural habitats, cultural traditions and empirical knowledge.

Though reproduction rights of "living" sounds are usually owned by the sponsoring party, and as such may be used as a vehicle to generate revenue and disseminate knowledge and information, the ownership of the traditions that these sounds represent truly belong to the body of human experience and natural phenomena.

While all forms of sound will induce an emotional impact on the museum visitor, Music can be produced or presented to create a mood with the most predictable results. As a background element, Music can tie together larger exhibit areas under the umbrella of an exhibit theme. In the foreground, Music can propel the visitor into the "sense" of the accompanying exhibit. This may especially be true of music composed specifically for the exhibit, as it can be produced to thematically focus the intent of the exhibit.

Music recorded "in the field" can convey volumes of information about the culture of the performers. A simple wedding song may illustrate the language, gender roles, musical instruments, rhythmic, tonal and structural sensibilities, and emotional mood that the representative culture associates with marriage. The overall sound may clearly illustrate the differences between the subject culture and the listeners culture, and the beauty of the song may very simply convey their similarities.

Narrative may be presented in many forms. These include scripted narratives, theatrical presentation, readings from literature, "interactive" dialogs with the museum visitor and "Oral Histories". The choice of which form is most suitable will depend on what type and how much information is intended to be conveyed by the presentation.

There is no clear or specific advantage of one form over another in regards to how much information may be disseminated. What should be considered in any of the narrative forms is that a few well placed quotations or words may easily open many doors of perception for the visitor, whereas a litany of facts and figures may drone on beyond the reach of the visitors imagination. This is not to say that a "wordy" presentation should be avoided, in fact, if the story is compelling, or the sound of the voice is interesting or comforting, a lot of value can be obtained from a small amount of museum space and exhibit investment using a story alone.

The "Oral History" clearly represents the highest value of Narrative presentations in terms of lasting and manifold use. "Oral histories" and "living stories" can have the advantage of carrying subconscious information without the "list of facts" feel that a scripted production may have. "Oral histories" are also valuable in that the material actually becomes a part of the exhibitors collection in terms of it being unique and valuable information. Cataloged properly, it can be archived and used for research and education to further the intent of the original exhibit.

We are fortunate to be living in a time when there are still people who remember some of the most transformative events in all of history. These people have seen sailing ships and hand cranked phones give way to supersonic jets and satellite transmitted voice and data. They remember schools of tuna measured in days, not kilometers, and a time when smallpox and polio were common threats to life. These witnesses to history need to be recorded. It's not just the words that they speak, but the sound of their voices that will impart the full meaning of their experience.

Just as the recording the legacy of the human experience can help preserve the traditions and wisdom of our cultures, the recording of natural habitats may help preserve our disappearing wilderness. When people hear the beauty of a "dawn chorus" in a spring meadow, or the mystery of the night sounds in a tropical rainforest, a whole new respect for these habitats is awakened. It is constantly amusing to us that a static model of a natural habitat which museum visitors may just "look" at will come alive when accompanied by an audio reconstruction of the natural habitat sounds. When the sound is persuasive, museum visitors will actually "watch" models of birds or frogs as if they are just about ready to move.

It is also becoming painfully clear to us just how important it is to preserve the sounds of nature. Even in the remote jungles of South America or the deserts of the North American West, scarcely ten minutes passes without hearing the sounds of a chainsaw, a domesticated rooster or an airplane.

The Presentation of Sound

When considering the presentation of recorded sound in a public setting, many elements need to be evaluated. These include the playback methods and control technologies, the types of sound transducers or speakers used, and the acoustical setting or environment in which the sound is to be presented. The factors which will influence the final choices should take into consideration weather the sound is to be an exhibit feature, or a support element, if it is to be used to convey information, or be used to set an ambiance.

There are so many possibilities in playback and control systems available today that there are many trade publications dedicated to their promotion and understanding, so it is beyond the scope of this article to explore them. This same holds true for sound transducers and speakers. Suffice it to say that attention to audio fidelity, and considerations of durability required for continuous public use stand out as very important design objectives when specifying a sound presentation system.

Perhaps the most neglected aspect of exhibit sound design is the acoustical design of the exhibit environment. Conditions of excessive reverberation, poor speech intelligibility and background noise may all detract from the potential impact of an exhibit. In this respect, Acoustics will play a role in an exhibit even where production sound is not a presentation element.

For example if a natural woodland habitat replica was duplicated in form inside a masonry, glass and steel building replete with long audio reverberation times and crowd noise, a visitor would experience a constructed replica of a woodland habitat inside a large building. On the other hand, if the area surrounding the habitat was treated acoustically to attenuate the noise and aural effects of the building reverberation, the visitor would not be distracted by the "noise" of the larger building. If the subtle sound of a brook and a few insects were introduced into the setting, the visitor would more likely imagine being in a woodland habitat, even though they are in a masonry, glass and steel building.

The affect of this type of acoustical design is called "psycho-acoustics". Psycho-acoustics in space design refers to the psychological effect that the acoustics of a space has on the visitor - how the visitor perceives themselves in the space. Although people get strong direct visual cues from their immediate environment, providing them with an empirical view of the space they are in, acoustics, like smell and peripheral vision, will set the subconscious cues to give the visitor a sense of where they are.

In public space design, psycho-acoustic design can be used to create "waiting areas" by allowing people to feel at ease, or encourage traffic flow by inducing a sense of motion and activity, but more importantly for exhibit settings, the creation of acoustical spaces that may contradict, or are that appropriately juxtaposed to the visitors visual experience, windows of perception are opened, allowing the experience to permeate into the subconscious.


Sound Design has historically been considered in a supporting role in the museum setting, but there are many aspects of sound and sound design that are ripe for developing. This may be particularly true in more industrialized nations where the museums are vying for the public's entertainment allowance pitted against "home entertainment centers", dazzling theme parks, and sensational movies and video games. Regardless of where it is presented, we feel that sound is important to cherish and share with everyone who can hear because it is a substantial part of the human experience.

Given the flexibility and potential impact of a well designed sound presentation, a thorough evaluation of incorporating sound into an exhibit design is always warranted. Sound production can act as more than an enhancement to visual elements of an exhibit. If thoughtfully and carefully recorded and produced, it may serve as a feature and an added asset to a museum's unique collection.

Michael Stocker