Among Relics and Noisemakers
Recently, I began working at the Portland Art Museum. As a creative who has worked in ceramics, typography, social practice, and more, I am thrilled to be in the presence of renowned artwork every day. However, there has been one significant and unanticipated repercussion of my new job—it has made me extremely conscious of my footwear.
I often pass through the public galleries in my daily errands, and I’ve noticed that my shoes can get very noisy. Besides my beloved Toms, most pairs clack and clatter angrily against the polished hardwood floors. My shoes instantly transform me from a dutiful employee to a walking cacophony, disturbing the peace and earning me annoyed looks from visitors.
The discomfort surrounding my footwear emerges as a product of the expectations that sculpt museum space. Museums, and particularly art museums, place the utmost value on the power of quiet. Security guards ensure that we do not disturb the art or each other. With some exceptions—youth school tours, for example, which allow for learning to have a noisier hum—the prevailing assumption is that viewing art is an internal, individualized, and largely inaudible experience. I have witnessed this performance of respectable viewership playing itself out countless times. Expressive responses to aesthetic experiences are actively shushed. If we must share our feelings with others, it must be done in cautious whispers, so as not to shake the heavenly silence of the gallery space.
In this case, form also follows function. The deeply-entrenched cultural rules about how we relate to art are perpetuated by architecture. An American acoustics design firm, Kirkegaard Architects, offers a telling explanation of its goals in creating visual exhibition spaces:
Gallery environments should be well-tailored to allow a pensive, contemplative environment free of distractions. Ambient noise, room isolation, and quiet mechanical systems should be in harmony with architectural and exhibit design. The soaring volumes that often define lobby areas should be tailored to control excessive sound buildup and prevent cacophonous discord.
Don’t get me wrong: as a self-identified introvert who grew up in museums and libraries, I highly value reflection, contemplation, and quietude. I also recognize that, for the sake of artwork safety, museums cannot embrace super bass in quite the same way as one’s favorite bar can. However, I wonder what we might be missing by so heavily policing the soundscapes of the museum. Although they claim their own unique set of aesthetic conventions, other arts venues do not as strongly privilege one type of sensory input over another. We are not expected to close our eyes at a symphony, for example, to isolate our experience of music within the auditory realm, although we may be asked not to add competing sound. Does the museum—and especially the art museum—have the responsibility or capacity to curate noise? How might art museums become more open, engaging, and profound by increasing their sonic promiscuity, even if to the comfortable loudness of a bustling coffee shop?
I am not the first to probe the noise phobias surrounding typical art museums. At Portland Art Museum’s last Shine A Light, a social practice experiment to engage
visitors in unexpected ways, a DJ spun in the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art as patrons participated in hearty arm wrestling competitions in the sculpture courtyard. Exhibitions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s David Bowie Is draw connections between visual and musical creativity. Plus, artists continue to explore the unrecognized soundscapes that currently exist within museums; international artist John Kannenberg has been mapping and recording the footsteps, whispers, and mechanical whirrs of museum spaces for over fifteen years, capturing the concerts that museums unintentionally create. All of these inquiries regarding the scope of what we can expect in th