In the summer of 2020, #SonicFriday transformed a national museum’s relationship with sound and its audiences. Through 6 months of creative online engagement with sound, audiences found their voice at a time when the United Kingdom was in pandemic lockdown and all museums in the country had to close their doors.
Inspired by its world-leading collection of sound technologies, the National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK) invited social media users to share memories and stories around their personal relationship with sound culture: from cassettes, CDs and mp3s to digital sampling and lockdown sounds.
The response of audiences was unexpected: up to 3,000 users actively involved and more than 300 digital memories collected throughout different platforms. These memories not only enriched the collection, giving the birth to YouTube playlist, multimedia galleries and sound maps, but they gave life to the objects that, until then, remained silent in the physical galleries. The project created a new and thrilling interrogative: should these memories become heritage?
The aim of the project, designed in collaboration with the University of Leicester – School of Museum Studies in response to Covid-19, was to find new ways to make people interact with the objects of the museum’s collection using digital platforms. The project allowed the museum to continue engaging audiences during the museum closure, but also offered the opportunity to explore a new relationship with online users, who become curators of a collaborative story on sound technologies.
There were four major achievements of this project.
- INNOVATIVE DIGITAL FORMATS
#SonicFriday introduced new innovative digital formats to engage audiences with the objects of the collection. The project explored new opportunities of using social media and audio-based platforms to narrate the story of the objects and let people interact with them. YouTube playlists, multimedia galleries, sound maps and Twitter exhibitions became a new way to connect the objects with the sound and music that were part of their essence and with people’s life stories.
Three were, in particular, the most successful format experimented in the project.
Each theme of the project was presented through an introductory narrative published on the museum website and on social media. On Twitter, these narratives were included in special threads where the museum shared the stories collected from curators and museum volunteers and invited online users to add their own.
Memories from my Cassette player: https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1278978187238785024
I love digital sampling: https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1286588939281805312
Sounds of my Quarantine: https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1294207321653075968
My digital music library: https://twitter.com/i/status/1296733715360612353
Electric Stories of Music: https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1299273771824668673
The curatorial playlists
YouTube was used as a curatorial tool to tell the story of two synthesisers from the Sound Technologies collection and connect them with the music they contributed to create. The playlists were published on the museum blog and stimulated a high level of engagement on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
The Fairlight Playlist: https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/fairlight-cmi-playlist/
The Oberheim Playlist: https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/the-oberheim-synthesizer-a-playlist/
Collaborative sound map
One of the themes of the project was dedicated to the sonic experience during quarantine: from the music listened at home to the changing soundscape of the environment. The museum invited people to upload the sounds of their lockdown on a Padlet map, that collected overall 40 different sounds.
Sounds of my quarantine: https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/sounds-of-quarantine/
- SOUND AS CROWD-CURATORIAL TOOL
#SonicFriday demonstrates how powerful sound is to engage audiences. People have a really strong relationship with the sonic dimension and, throughout the project, this was key to bring memories to the surface. The eight themes of the campaign explored how rich and intimate is our relationship with sound culture: from personal memories of live music to the sonic experience during the lockdown, from digital sampling to the relationship with different audio formats – vinyl, cassettes and the advent of digital music. At the same time, the project explored a range of different platforms to engage with sound online.
Audio-based platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud and Pitter Pattr turned out to be effective tools both to innovatively present the story of the objects and to actively involve online users in conversations. The museum team realized that the use of sound and music to describe an object adds another level of meaning and can create a feeling of personal, intimate and emotional connection with the collection that is difficult to create in the museum. This use of sound as crowd-curatorial tool has been so effective that the museum team started envisioning how this could be applied in the physical space of the museum.
- THE RESPONSE OF AUDIENCES
The project received a great response from online audiences who were really keen to share their stories. Throughout the summer, more than 300 digital memories were collected across the different platforms. The project’s online reach was wide with an average of 5,000 people reached by each theme and up to 3,000 users actively engaged in sharing and commenting. The engagement rate was almost always over the average of the overall posts published during the museum closure, testifying the ability of the project to transform the relationship with the online users, inviting them to actively respond to the museum prompts. The campaign also involved the other museums of the Science Museum Group, that shared some of the posts and actively interacted, offering insights from their own collections.
- THE VALUE OF DIGITAL MEMORIES
One of the most interesting aspects of the project was the collection of 300 digital memories, that were shared by online audiences across the different platforms. The most successful theme was “Memories from my cassette player”, which received 100 digital contributions around the relationship with this medium, including images of personal devices and/or cassettes, stories, and YouTube links. This enthusiastic response stimulated a reflection within the museum team on the value of this type of online contributions, that people often share also spontaneously on social media. In the #SonicFriday project, these memories have increased the understanding of people’s relationship with particular sound technologies, such as the cassettes and CDs, and also contributed to collect new stories that can, in the future, be included in the physical display.
The project raised intriguing questions about where these digital contributions from audiences can be hosted, displayed and preserved for the long term.