Curating Sound in a Platform World – Insights from the #SonicFriday project

Stefania ZardiniLacedelli, University of Leicester, UK, John Stack, Science Museum Group, UK, Annie Jamieson, National Science and Media Museum, UK

Abstract

Traditionally, sound had no place in museums. Originally conceived as institutions predominantly devoted to visual and material culture, only in the past twenty years have museums started to recognise the role of sound as heritage and as a means to engage audiences. The digital revolution further contributed to this shift, changing forever our practices of listening, creating and consuming sound. Sound culture is now deeply intertwined with the world of digital platforms and the participatory society we live in. As a result, museums have not only found themselves interacting with a less familiar medium (sound), but with online cultures that are often disconnected from their collections. To understand how to respond to these challenges, the National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK) launched the #SonicFriday project. The aim of the project, designed in collaboration with the University of Leicester in response to Covid-19, was to find new ways to extend the curation of sound on digital platforms and engage audiences with the material collection of Sound Technologies. From June to September 2020 the museum experimented with new online sonic practices and 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. Through the project, more than 300 digital memories were collected and formed the basis of thematic playlists, sound maps, and Twitter exhibitions. The project raised new challenging questions around the role of sound in stimulating powerful emotional connections with museum objects, the value of people’s memories, and the role of online audiences who became co-curators of new digital narratives. This paper explores how sound curation has profound implications, not only for changes in practice, but also on the way museum professionals conceive the collections, the relationship with audiences and, ultimately, the museum itself.

Keywords: Sound Culture, sonic practices, digital memories, crowd-curation, platforms

Curating Sound in a Platform World

Insights from the #SonicFriday project

Stefania Zardini Lacedelli, University of Leicester (UK), John Stack, Science Museum Group (UK), Annie Jamieson, National Science and Media Museum (UK)

Abstract

Traditionally, sound had no place in museums. Originally conceived as institutions predominantly devoted to visual and material culture, only in the past twenty years have museums started to recognise the role of sound as heritage, and as a means to engage audiences. The digital revolution further contributed to this shift, changing forever our cultures of listening, creating and consuming sound. Sound culture is now deeply intertwined with the world of digital platforms and the participatory society we live in. As a result, museums have not only found themselves interacting with a less familiar medium (sound), but with online cultures that are often disconnected from their collections. To understand how to respond to these challenges, the National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK) launched the #SonicFriday project. The aim of the project, designed in collaboration with the University of Leicester in response to Covid-19, was to find new ways to extend the curation of sound on digital platforms and engage audiences with the material collection of Sound Technologies. From June to September 2020 the museum experimented with new online sonic practices and 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. Through the project, more than 300 digital memories were collected and formed the basis of thematic playlists, sound maps and Twitter exhibitions. The project raised new challenging questions around the role of sound in stimulating powerful emotional connections with museum objects, the value of people’s memories, and the role of online audiences who became co-curators of new digital narratives. This paper explores how sound curation has profound implications, not only for changes in practice, but also on the way museum professionals conceive the collections, the relationship with audiences and, ultimately, the museum itself.

 

1. Introduction

A new sonic age for museums

Sound in all its forms – spoken words, music, natural soundscapes, auditory imagery – is a fundamental part of the human condition: it influences how we perceive the world, how we remember, and how we socially interact. In addition to being one of our main sensory channels, “the production and adoption of sounds is one of the foundations of human activity that can be found as a constitutive practice in every culture” (Wicke, 2016). The anthropologist Steven Field coined the word “acoustemology” to indicate this experiential knowledge in and through sound (Field, 1992).

Despite the role of sound as carrier of knowledge, since their origin, museums have shaped themselves for visual and material cultures. The interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies has described the predominance of visual culture in museums as a consequence of the so-called “Ophtalmocentrism” of Western philosophy, forecasting the advent of a multisensory turn (Sterne, 2003; O’Callaghan, 2007). In the past twenty years a growing body of research (Bubaris, 2014; Cox, 2015; Kannenberg, 2017) has started to explore the relevance of sound in museums from two different perspectives: as an element of culture – both tangible and intangible –  to be preserved and collected (Sound Heritage) and as a means to engage audiences with the collections (Sound Design). Interacting with sound either as heritage or as an engagement practice poses great challenges to museums. The nature of sound requires cultural institutions to explore spaces, systems and technologies, as well as cultural forms and practices, that are different from the ones cognate with visual and material objects.

As a result, the increasing presence of sound in museums raises a number of different questions. How does sound challenge previous processes and assumptions in museums, such as the concept of heritage/collections, the design of cultural experiences, the relationship with audiences? What new curatorial practices need to be developed in order to embrace sound culture in museums?

Sound culture: practices and technologies

To answer these questions, it’s important to understand how sound is perceived, experienced and interacted with in contemporary society. The concept of sound, in fact, cannot be understood other than through its connection with specific cultures, practices, and technologies of a particular time. To reflect the complexity of the concept of sound that goes beyond the acoustic phenomenon, Wicke (2016) suggests the use of the term “sonic”:

The sonic is culturalized acoustic matter – or, in other words: the concept of sound that is linked to the respective modes of sound generation and its technology, as well as to the soundscapes of a particular time and society. (Wicke, 2016)

Because sonic practices are developed in relation to specific technologies with which they are inseparably intertwined (Kassabian, 2016), the contemporary experience of sound cannot be understood without taking into account its relationship with digital technology, e.g. the variety of ways and platforms through which sounds are shared in our digital society. The digital revolution and its wave of transformation has changed forever our cultures of listening, creating and consuming sound. As Pinch and Bijsterveld (2014) observed, “Sound is no longer just sound; it has become technologically produced and mediated sound”. Ubiquitous and mobile listening, the portability of any acoustic space, online music-sharing, and co-production are the main paradigms that shape our sonic experience today (Bull, 2000; Pinch & Bijsterveld, 2004; Kassabian, 2013; Leong & Wright, 2013; Quiñones, 2016). In this context, the emergence of audio-sharing platforms, streaming services, and online music stores are bringing the experiences of listening, creating and sharing closer together (Papenburg & Schulze, 2016). The biggest audiovisual public library available today – YouTube – is an online platform that has been entirely created by its users through the mechanism of remediation:

A high proportion of the content of YouTube is mainstream entertainment and news re-presented, in excerpted form, by its consumers: talk-show snippets, period-piece TV commercials, theme songs, long-lost vintage footage of bands performing on TV, favourite sequences of movies. (Reynolds, 2011)

And like YouTube, many other platforms have adopted this new business model that turns consumers into co-producers, and consolidates emergent new practices like making playlists (Prior, 2018). Contemporary sonic culture is therefore closely enmeshed in the ecosystem of platforms and the participatory society we live in (Jenkins, 2009; Van Dijck et al., 2013): digital platforms are collaborative spaces where everyone has the opportunity to comment, share and be part of a conversation, and they represent a great opportunity for museums to enrich the interpretation of their objects (Simon, 2010; Giaccardi, 2012).

As a result, museums have not only found themselves interacting with an unfamiliar medium (sound), but with online participatory cultures that are often disconnected from the objects of their collections. The National Science and Media Museum (Bradford, UK) launched a project to understand how a museum can address these challenges.

 

2. The Case Study: the National Science and Media Museum

Curating Sound Technologies

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford (UK) is part of the Science Museum Group, the leading group of science museums in the UK. The museum holds a world-wide collection of Sound Technologies which includes a diverse range of objects designed to contribute to different aspects of sound production, reproduction and manipulation in public, personal and domestic contexts, including the emergence of new digital sound technologies (SMG Collecting Policy, 2016). Because of their intrinsic sonic nature, all the objects of this collection pose great challenges to curators.

Each of these objects has a sounding function, so putting them into a glass case to look at is not a good way to engage visitors with their essence. These objects were designed to be used, and that use, that relationship has to be part of how we display them (Jamieson, 2020).

All the sound technologies are “sounding objects”, born in connection with specific cultures and practices of sound making and listening, and they cannot be understood and experienced using the traditional practice of displaying visual objects. In order to bring them alive and recreate the entire world of sounds, music and stories that surrounds them, the museum needs to apply a different approach. One solution, already explored for collections of computer technologies (Keramidas, 2015), could be working with operating objects. A working object can have a great value in improving the understanding of the original function and relating each object to its original users and the context in which it was used. But the museum has the duty to preserve the fabric of the objects and operating them can create irreversible wear and tear. Furthermore, a working object doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best quality visitor experience.

If the museum space and physical experience pose some specific limitations and constraints, the digital dimension opens up an entire range of new possibilities, not only for connecting the objects with their original contexts of use, but also to invite audiences to develop a more personal relationship with them. This was the aim of the research project funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership: to explore how digital platforms could offer new ways to engage with the objects of the Sound Technologies collection and experiment with new curatorial practices.

 

The #SonicFriday project

#SonicFriday was an online project to enable audiences to interact with the objects of the Sound Technologies collection and collect new stories around sound (https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/sonicfriday-story-of-sound-technologies/). The project was built upon a doctoral research project funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership at the University of Leicester, School of Museum Studies.

The project was designed by the PhD researcher together with the curatorial and communication team in the first months of the UK lockdown (March–May 2020). Each Friday through summer 2020, the National Science and Media Museum’s social media channels published a digital narrative around a sounding object or theme from the collection, and invited online users to share their stories. The project allowed the museum to continue engaging audiences during the museum closure resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, but also offered the opportunity to explore a new relationship with online users, who become curators of a collaborative story on sound technologies.

The eight themes of the #SonicFriday project: 'Throwback Live Music', 'Memories from my cassette player', 'Sound of my quarantine', 'I love digital sampling', 'CD memories', 'My first vinyl record', 'My digital music library', and 'Electronic Stories of Music'.
Figure 1: The eight themes of the #SonicFriday project

In order to stimulate participation, the museum team chose eight themes that were close to the life experience of social media users: 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. Each theme was introduced by a dedicated introductory narrative that guided audiences to discover a specific object from the collection. These narratives were adapted to the language and context of each social media platform.

YouTube and other audio-sharing platforms played a fundamental role in connecting the museum objects with their related sound culture. In the case of “I love Digital Sampling” and “Electronic Stories of Music” themes, YouTube was used as a curatorial tool to connect two synthesisers from the collection with the music they contributed to creating. The result was two curatorial playlists that were published on the museum blog and shared on social media as Twitter exhibitions.

The playlist dedicated to Fairlight synthesiser on the Science and Media Museum blog
Figure 2: The playlist dedicated to Fairlight synthesiser on the Science and Media Museum blog (https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/fairlight-cmi-playlist/)

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 post and 2,000 users actively engaged in sharing and commenting.

The project also proved to be an effective way to involve the museum volunteers remotely during the museum closure, through five dedicated online sessions. The volunteers made an important contribution, by sharing some interesting stories on their relationship with cassettes, CDs and mp3s that were published in the Twitter threads.

An excerpt of the Twitter thread dedicated to CD memories
Figure 3: An excerpt of the Twitter thread dedicated to CD memories (https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1289132134184222720)

The project fostered the development of new crowd-curated digital narratives that were subsequently assembled and organized by the researcher and museum team on the National Science and Media Museum blog and on dedicated online 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. Most of the users shared memories of songs that they originally listened to on cassettes, which the museum team collected in a Spotify playlist.

The Spotify playlist dedicated to cassettes memories including 58 songs
Figure 4: The Spotify playlist dedicated to cassettes memories including 58 songs (http://spoti.fi/2ZSCCJT)

“Sounds of my quarantine” (https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/sounds-of-quarantine/) was also an extremely stimulating theme that added a level of complexity to participation: the museum invited users to share their sonic experience during lockdown, such as the music they listened at home, or actual sounds of the environment. Some of the participants used YouTube links to express their listening experience in quarantine, but the majority wanted to share actual sounds of their own lockdown. To allow users to upload mp3 audio files, the project explored a range of different platforms.

Platform Description
Learning Toolbox A platform for the creation of e-posters and collaborative multimedia galleries. It was used to collect lockdown sounds from the AHRC PhD community during the M4C Digital Research Festival.
Padlet A platform that allows for creation of collaborative boards and maps where online users can upload any kind of multimedia content (links, video, audio files, etc.). It was used to collect all the content previously shared in the volunteer session and to give social media users the opportunity to upload their own sounds and their location.
Pitter Pattr An app that allows the sharing of short audio clips (Sound Snippets) on social media, that can be generated from an original recording but also from existing audio/video content on YouTube, SoundCloud and TikTok. It was used at the end of the project to share on social media a selection of the sounds previously collected.

Table 1: The platforms used in the #SonicFriday project to share sound files

The project demonstrated the curatorial potential of these multimedia platforms used in combination with social media, showing the opportunities to develop new sonic practices in a cultural context.

The collaborative sound gallery on the e-poster “Sounds of my quarantine” presented in the M4C Digital Research Festival
Figure 5: The collaborative sound gallery on the e-poster “Sounds of my quarantine” presented in the M4C Digital Research Festival (https://api.ltb.io/show/BHORQ)

 

The collaborative sound map on Padlet
Figure 6: The collaborative sound map on Padlet (https://padlet.com/platformmuseum/q9unei4soco98xu8)

 

An audio clip shared on the Instagram National Science and Media Museum’s profile using the Pitter Pattr app
Figure 7: An audio clip shared on the Instagram National Science and Media Museum’s profile using the Pitter Pattr app (https://www.instagram.com/mediamuseum/)

3. The Study

At the end of the project, a case study design (Yin, 2018) was implemented, to understand the impact of the use of digital platforms on the curation of sound at three different levels:

–       new curatorial practices introduced,

–       the relationship with audiences,

–       the way the museum team conceive their heritage/collections.

To investigate these different levels, quantitative and qualitative data were combined (Creswell & Creswell, 2018) using a range of different methods.

The qualitative data come from two focus groups with the museum team and volunteers. The focus group was used to investigate the impact of the #SonicFriday project gaining insights from the social interaction among the participants. Because of the pandemic, the focus groups were conducted online, by means of video and online platforms involving 7 members of the museum team, 2 volunteers and 1 PhD student. The online focus group is a variation of a traditional focus group which employs digital technologies for accessing and interacting with participants in different parts of the world (Tuttas, 2015). While online focus groups remove time and geographical constraints, they also complicate the role of facilitator, especially in keeping participants engaged (Lijadi & Schalkwyk, 2015). To respond to this challenge, a real synchronous discussion was combined with an asynchronous method, using an online platform to display a selection of the digital memories and online interactions as well as collect initial thoughts prior to the focus groups.

The e-poster created for the first focus group on the Learning Toolbox platform, displaying a selection of digital memories
Figure 8: The e-poster created for the first focus group on the Learning Toolbox platform, displaying a selection of digital memories (https://api.ltb.io/show/BBSVD)

To analyse in depth the response of online audiences, a social media analysis was implemented using the social media insights from the three platforms adopted in the #SonicFriday project (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram). This analysis combined quantitative data (total reach, number of engaged users and engagement rate) to understand the level of engagement achieved by the project, with qualitative data to analyse the content of these responses and interactions.

All the qualitative data were analysed using Content Analysis (Schreier, 2012, Liamputtong, 2011), through a coding frame that assigned specific categories to the material. The following section describes the preliminary results of this study. In reporting the qualitative results, participants were anonymized but their role in the organization and the Focus Group ID is indicated. In reporting the Twitter threads, the social media users have also been anonymized.

 

4. Preliminary results

New practices of sound curation

This level aimed to identify what kind of practices of sound curation the use of digital platforms introduced, as well as to investigate whether it promoted a change in how the practice of curation is conceived.

At a quantitative level, the project stimulated the creation of new digital narratives around sound and sound technologies that were published on the web space of the museum and on third-party platforms. In doing so, the project extended the curation of the sound technologies collection online, experimenting with new narrative formats such as curatorial playlist, Twitter exhibitions, multimedia galleries and collaborative sound maps.

Digital narrative Number Platform
Blog post 4 National Science and Media Museum Blog
Twitter Exhibition 11 Twitter
Curatorial playlist 2 YouTube
Collaborative playlist 1 Spotify
Collaborative Sound Map 1 Padlet
Multimedia galleries 3 Learning Toolbox

Table 2: The new practices introduced by the #SonicFriday project

The project has also explored the curatorial potential of audio-sharing platforms such as YouTube and the recently born sound platform Pitter Pattr.

YouTube turned out to be an effective tool both to innovatively present the function and story of the collection objects and to actively involve online users in conversations around the role of these technologies and their legacy on popular music. The playlists were shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where they stimulated a high level of engagement. In particular, the Fairlight was one of the most successful prompts of the project, with more than 25,000 people reached and 200 users actively engaged in sharing and commenting.

An excerpt from the Twitter thread dedicated to the Fairlight playlist
Figure 9: An excerpt from the Twitter thread dedicated to the Fairlight playlist (https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1286588939281805312)

The Fairlight playlist was also shared in two different Facebook Groups specifically dedicated to synthesizers, where it triggered expert conversations among synth enthusiasts. This evidence suggests how YouTube can be an inclusive tool to engage both tech experts and a broader audience. The playlist allowed people who didn’t know the synthesisers before to feel a personal connection with the story of these sound technologies, by listening to iconic songs that were already part of their life experience. It also allowed those who already knew this history to enrich this online narrative, by sharing other music composed with the Fairlight and the Oberheim.

Similarly, Pitter Pattr has proven to be a promising tool deserving of further experimentation, bridging a gap existing in the contemporary platform ecosystem. Currently, users can only share links to external video and audio-platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud, but this requires pre-existing content already uploaded on the web. Thanks to the technology of the Sound Snippet, Pitter Pattr allows sharing short audio clips – i.e. the videos of the sound waves – on social media.

An excerpt from the Twitter thread dedicated to the sounds of quarantine, including audio clips created with the Pitter Pattr app
Figure 10: An excerpt from the Twitter thread dedicated to the sounds of quarantine, including audio clips created with the Pitter Pattr app (https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1294207321653075968)

Reflecting on the use of this platform, participants highlighted how effective was the ability to share actual sounds on social media.

We uploaded the actual sounds to Twitter in the thread and that was really nice to get people actually hearing the sounds. We haven’t really done that before, just uploading sounds. So, that was a nice experiment as well for us on social. (Social media officer, FG2)

The museum team realized that the use of sound and music to describe an object adds another level of meaning and can have a curatorial value in itself:

If you could hear the songs that were associated with the object… It just gives you another level of meaning. (Social media officer, FG2)

These practices have proven to have the power to bring objects to life in a way that rarely happens in a museum. Together with sound and music, other intangible elements came alive: people’s memories, stories of use, feelings and emotions attached to a song.

You feel the history, but not only “the History”, like “this is what has been”, it’s just the life of the object, of an experience. It just feels like the object magically comes alive again. (Volunteer Coordinator, FG2)

This polyvocal narrative has been so effective that the museum team started envisioning how this could be applied in the physical space of the museum:

We could present a range of people’s personal stories around an object in a gallery. It might give the people who come to the museum a touchpoint for their own experiences. (Website Manager, FG2)

It was furthermore hypothesised that the practice of sound curation on digital platforms could have the value as a method, a way of working and thinking, that can be applied beyond sound as a subject:

In terms of the method of how it’s been delivered, I think that definitely there are things we can learn from it. The approach of making that connection between objects and past experiences, getting that kind of personal input from people. (Communication Manager, FG2)

This new way of thinking favored a participatory approach to curation that can change, as we will see in the next paragraphs, the relationship with the audience and the interpretation of the collection.

The project allowed us to see what value visitors see in the collection. It gave us a perspective on what a cassette player means for a lot of our visitors, or what vinyl means. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG1)

 

Changing the relationship with audience

A second level of investigation was aimed to explore what changes the project introduced in the relationship with audiences.

At a quantitative level, these new online practices extended the audience range and the level of engagement with the collection, as revealed by the social media insights. The engagement rate was almost always over the average of the overall posts published during the summer, especially in the number of comments/replies.

The engagement rate of the #SonicFriday posts on Twitter and Facebook
Figure 11: The engagement rate of the #SonicFriday posts on Twitter and Facebook

 

This higher level of involvement was also noticed by the communication team:

The cassette prompt was the most engaged Facebook post we had during the museum’s closure. It was great to see a collaborative project working so well on social media. (Social media officer, FG2)

Participants in the focus group also noticed that the project was able to go beyond the museum’s reach both in geographical terms – attracting international contributions – and demographic terms.

I really like the fact that the project has reached a wide range of audiences and degrees of interest in sound technologies: from expert synth enthusiasts to people just remembering their childhood, and everything in between. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG1)

But what changed was not only the range of people involved. It was the very nature of the relationship with the museum that was different. People on social media have a different behavior than in a museum: they are more reactive and keen to contribute.

It’s a lot more reactive social media. Somebody could say something and then that could inspire a meme or a whole different conversation. Whereas the museum is a lot more static. You know, the interpretation isn’t gonna change. The objects aren’t going to change. (Social media officer, FG2)

Furthermore, sharing personal memories on social media made it easy for people to contribute:

It’s very undemanding. It’s not asking a lot of time or commitment from people to contribute: they don’t have to read a lot, they can just have a look on Twitter every so often through the day, take a picture of what’s in their collection and they likely come back and post it on their account. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG1)

People not only responded to the museum prompt to share their memories, but also started personal conversations around the themes. Participants in the focus group noticed that social media makes people more inclined to interact with others, even strangers, and to respond in a more personal way:

In the museum, visitors tend to interact in their own groups they’ve come with rather than interacting with all the completely separate visitors there, whereas those barriers are sort of not really there in online content so people will interact with anyone else who’s in on the conversation. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG2)

The conversations you might get in the museum are something anecdotal, but on social media, people are actually actively telling you their stories. You just don’t get that in the gallery. (Social media officer, FG2)

Sound and music seem to have played a fundamental role in stimulating this personal involvement and interactions. People have a really strong relationship with music and music is key to bring memories to the surface:

I was about six years old and the first record I’ve ever bought was a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace. Someone put the YouTube video and it was like going back to the old days. It was a real nostalgia moment. I loved that. (Museum volunteer, FG1)

Two Twitter users sharing their musical memories on cassettes
Figure 12: Two Twitter users sharing their musical memories on cassettes (https://twitter.com/MediaMuseum/status/1278978187238785024)

Because music, in particular, is an important part of everyone’s life, it can create a feeling of connection with the collection even when a specific object is not of common use:

The music shared on YouTube gives people that reference for them to connect to. It’s a way for people to grab onto something that makes whatever that thing that’s being discussed relatable to them. (Website Manager, FG2)

Furthermore, sharing music with others using a YouTube link or co-creating playlists with family, colleagues or friends is a very common practice, and it has a strong emotional power:

So many people communicate that way. I do it all the time, just sharing what I’m listening to at the moment, if I’m on the train with whoever. And I might not actually even be listening to it on YouTube, but that’s the easiest way to just share it. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG2)

It’s quite emotive, I think, sharing music with people. (Social media officer, FG2)

Participants noticed that this type of emotional involvement and active interaction is usually difficult to create with museum objects, and reflected on the role that the combined use of audio-sharing and social media platforms can have in the future to encourage people to explore and discover the museum collections.

I felt that the life and the interest was in that space with everybody contributing their personal things. It’s hard to make that emotional connection with the objects in the museum. (Volunteer coordinator, FG1)

 

A new concept of heritage

The third level of investigation aimed to identify if curating sound on digital platforms changed the way museums conceive their collection and the heritage itself.

The project seems to have shifted the focus from a material-based concept of heritage – in this case, the collection of sound-related objects – to an intangible one. If the museum as institution has been shaped around material objects in physical spaces, curating sound on digital platforms can unlock the intangible elements that surround these objects:

When you look at this sort of response there’s very little sort of material interest. Most of the time, people aren’t really talking about ‘the objects’ but what they did on it, what they heard on it, what they played on it and this kind of thing. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG1)

If sound played a fundamental role in this recognition, it also revealed how complex and interrelated is the relationship between the physical and digital dimension. Audience responses demonstrated that the acoustic experience is just one of the elements of sound culture, that includes also physical objects and other types of intangible elements such as images, video, personal memories.

I really liked the fact that there were different types of things that you could explore: there was a picture, there was the video, there was the music… the variety, I do think that kept my interest on when I’ve looked at it afterwards. (Volunteer Coordinator, FG2)

The comparison with the way people collect things in their own life stimulated another important shift from a rational to a more emotional approach to collecting:

It sounds like sometimes our stuff is a bit clinical. In the museum we have the board of acquisitions that makes a formal decision: if and why to collect something. Whereas people are like ‘That’s part of my past… I can’t take it away’. So, in a sense, we’re doing the same thing, but it seems like that the one comes from the head, the other comes from the heart. (Digital Director, FG1)

Participants recognized the value of the personal dimension not only as an engagement tool, but as an element of the collection itself:

It’s really interesting to see people’s personal memories. It’s that personal element of being the thing that the person actually has or actually uses and having a connection with that. (Website Manager, FG1)

This personal dimension and the variety of sonic and digital elements that expresses this connection – links, images, audio, video, text – made the contributions itself “a crowd-curated resource of content that is fun and interesting to explore in its own right” (Digital Director, FG2).

As a consequence, the museum team raised a very important question: should museums collect these memories? In this case, the collection of contributions was part of the project itself, but a lot of the time people share their memories also spontaneously on social media and museums don’t collect these responses that can have instead a great value:

Interpretations and approaches to interpreting objects have really changed over the years and decades. And you should be able to collect those responses, to store them permanently, because those responses and attitudes would change over time. (Digital Director, FG1)

Reflecting further on the value of this type of contribution, the participants identified different levels of application. First of all, they can be a precious source of information to help the museum team in interpreting the objects and improving the way they are presented in the gallery. In the case of #SonicFriday, audience’s responses have increased the understanding of people’s relationship with particular sound technologies, such as the cassettes:

The cassette section was very rich and slightly surprising and heartening that so many people still engage with the medium. I guess a large part of that is because the cassette was the first time you could record your own stuff, and you could pirate things, you could copy things, and you could make your own recording. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG1)

Secondly, participants agreed that these digital memories can be part of the display and the interpretation itself: as a hook to get people interested, but also as stories that can add meaning to the collection and stimulate a more personal and emotional connection with the objects. 

We could use these quotes as interpretation, so you would have the labels with what people said about how they used it. And then we could continue the direct digital engagement in the gallery where you have a WhatsApp or Twitter feed where people can both engage themselves and see updates. (Curator of Sound Technologies, FG1)

Whether these memories are used as information or as interpretation, complementing the collection of physical objects with the collection of digital memories poses great challenges to the museum. In particular, the project raised intriguing questions about how this process might be managed and who might be in charge of it.

I personally feel this kind of work should be much more core to our roles, but I’m personally not sure we’re currently in a position to do this regularly. (Volunteer Coordinator, FG 1)

Equally important, the museum needs to be mindful where these sonic and digital contributions from audiences are hosted, displayed and preserved for the long term (Boogh, Hartig et al., 2020). If physical objects present peculiar conservation issues (wear and tear, physical conditions, storage, etc.), digital items have others. Although they can be easily copied, digital files need preserving and managing. Furthermore, the context of the digital files also needs recording alongside the files themselves and this might include not only the context in which they were published but also potentially more esoteric contexts such as the norms of user behaviour on those social media platforms at the time they were created. One of the hallmarks of online projects is their precarity, because they often rely on the sustained existence and functionality of third-party platforms that not infrequently change form or are incorporated into other platforms and may disappear entirely at short notice. Unlike the material objects, digital contributions are therefore much more dynamic, they can be continuously implemented as you go: so, they require an ongoing commitment in their identification, selection and integration in the narrative of the museum and consideration given to how such contributions can be made accessible and their context understood in the long term.

 

5. Conclusions

In a platform world, where digitality is increasingly becoming an integral part of organizational structures and development, museums need to change at both practical and ontological level (Proctor, 2010; Parry, 2013; Zardini Lacedelli, 2018). The traditional conceptualization of the museum as a physical institution that preserves and displays material objects of culture struggles to adapt to a post-digital hyperconnected society where co-creation, sharing and online communities are the norm.

Sound can help museums in this evolution, by challenging previous assumptions and offering a new philosophy, as well as tools and practices, to orient themselves in this platform world.

The findings, while preliminary, have shown how sound curation can have profound implications not only for changes in practice, but also on the way museums conceive their collections, their relationship with audiences and, ultimately, the museum itself. The new sonic practices experimented in the project suggest the need to extend concept of heritage to include not only physical objects but all the intangible elements that surround them: stories, experiences and personal memories that these objects generated and continue to inspire. Hence, it seems that sound curation prompted a shift to a more emotional approach to the interpretation of the objects and increased the participatory dimension. Audiences’ contributions are not only the result of an engagement tool, but they have become additional elements that can enrich the collections themselves.

All these insights can open the way to a new conceptualization of the museum as a dynamic and participatory institution, which includes digital and sonic elements in the collection and invites people to be part of the stories it tells. In the post-digital age, sound can be the key for museums to fully embrace the platform world and start to act as platforms themselves.

 

6. Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to the UK’s Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership (M4C) for funding the research placement at the Science Museum Group that made this project possible. The placement was part of the AHRC-funded PhD research of Stefania Zardini Lacedelli at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. The authors would also like to thank all the members of the museum team and volunteers that took part in this study.

 

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Cite as:
ZardiniLacedelli, Stefania, Stack, John and Jamieson, Annie. "Curating Sound in a Platform World – Insights from the #SonicFriday project." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 15, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/curating-sound-in-a-platform-world-insights-from-the-sonicfriday-project/