Museum Life: Sensory perception in the gallery

Last month I was able to take a long overdue vacation and view many wonderful exhibitions along the way, as well as attend and present at the 4th annual Fashion Now & Then conference at LIM College, which I’ll discuss in next month’s post.

One thread that that ran through my gallery observations was a heightened awareness of sound incorporated into the exhibition experience.  Obviously, the visual sense is privileged in the gallery setting–both for object presentation and preservation.  Touch is a strong urge among gallery goers–especially when sumptuous fabrics or iconic garments are involved–and this audience longing for a real, tangible connection with the object is often overlooked, and of course must be controlled for conservation reasons. There have been some inventive ways to incorporate the sense of touch into exhibition experiences, such as the inclusion of half-scale, touchable models of Charles James gowns at the Charles James: Genius Reconstructed exhibition at the Chicago History Museum in 2011.

Sound can also be an effective tool in enriching sensory experience, establishing context, and creating a certain mood.  Upon my visit to Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I became very aware of the use of sound, which suffused and spilled over beyond the exhibition space. Before a single ensemble was glimpsed, the strains of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, Op. 48 could be heard as one descended the steps into the galleries.  Only the exhibition title was in view at this stage, placed in a cameo shape encroached upon by a painted weeping willow, referencing both mourning jewelry and embroidered memorial paintings of the 19th century.

Death Becomes Her exhibition entrance Photo by the author

Death Becomes Her exhibition entrance
Photo by the author

The music did not detract from the setting, but added to the physical and metaphorical weight of the clothing that women (and men, also represented through a few examples) wore through the mandatory stages of mourning.  The music also seemed to affect the audience mood and conversation.  People spoke in hushed tones or not at all, as though they were attending a funeral or other somber memorial event.  (I should say that I attended the exhibition in the middle of the week, when there were less crowds than on the weekend—with a crowded gallery, the music may be muted and not have the same effect).

Another interesting use of sound in the galleries could be found in the exhibition, Kimono: A Modern History, also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A fountain by Isamu Noguchi could be heard near a display of 19th century fireman’s jackets–fascinating garments that I did not expect to see in an exhibition on kimono.  The flowing water certainly evoked the calm of the Japanese home, palace, or garden where kimono were worn, but could also be a tangibly audible reference to the function and use of the fireman’s jacket.  Before fighting a fire, the jacket would be turned inside out with the decorated side against the body, and would then be soaked in water for added protection.

Installation view of 19th century fireman's jacket's, Kimono: A Modern History Photo by the author

Installation view of 19th century fireman’s jackets, Kimono: A Modern History
Photo by the author

A museum that may seem an unlikely subject in a discussion of costume exhibitions is the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but it is filled with numerous textile-based items-uniforms and other fascinating artifacts of the luminaries of baseball’s past.

Installation view of women's 1940s uniforms,  National Baseball Hall of Fame Photo by the author

Installation view of women’s 1940s uniforms,
National Baseball Hall of Fame
Photo by the author

Filling the galleries were audio interviews with players, music that may have been heard during the early 19th century days of the game or from the Caribbean islands from which so many great players have hailed.  These auditory pieces added by the museum were augmented by the lively banter of the audience themselves–reminiscenes of games past, memories of experiences in the stadium, the sound of “whooaaa”s by young baseball fans in awe.  This in itself is also part of the exhibition experience.

How have you experienced sound in an exhibition?  Are there creative ways you have heard it used?

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