I opened my Daily Arts Journal email today, and an article titled What does your brand sound like? got me thinking. What does a museum sound like? And how does that really affect the overall experience? On any given day, a museum is fairly quiet. It seems that people walk into a museum and suddenly begin using inside voices or three-inch voices as my first grade teacher called them. This is something we learn at a very young age, on field trips to museums, etc. It's as if the art on the walls is a performance, and we all know how to act when sitting in an audience.
But what happens when there is a performance piece in a gallery? There is noise that you aren't used to, and suddenly the most seasoned museum-goer doesn't know how to act. I had an experience with this while visiting the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in January. In two of the galleries, people dressed like museum guards would start speaking or singing, and one even did jumping jacks while repeating a phrase. My friends and I looked at each other, caught off guard and uncomfortable. My instinct was to talk back, or respond to these people. But what do you say? I never sit in front of a painting and respond by talking. I admit that my knowledge of performance art is limited to what I have learned in art history courses, however, seeing one in person (especially when I wasn't expecting it) was a different experience. I realized maybe that is one of the points of performance art. The sound, movement and ephemeral quality of it all contributed to my initial response.
This intentional sound in the galleries added to my overall experience of the museum. However, it is the unintentional sound that also adds to the feel and experience of the museum itself. Highly trafficked and more "touristy" museums such as the MoMA in New York are often packed with people, and you can hear people talking from the three-inch voice next to you to those standing across the gallery. I really don't mind this noise, as sometimes it allows me to focus even more closely because I am consciously blocking out other sounds.
Here at The Modern, I can find peace and quiet in front of any work in the galleries. I attribute this feeling to more than just a lack of sound. The architecture, open spaces, and light atmosphere all contribute. The space, however, can be transformed by sound. During special events, such as the upcoming First Fridays, the energetic atmosphere completely transforms the space itself. It is interesting to think about sound as part of the museum experience. Imagine what it would be like to visit the MoMA in silence. In a way, I think it is enjoyable to visit the visitor-packed museums like the Louvre or the Tate Modern. But how many times have you visited these kinds of museums to see the work, and then think about it later?
In this sense, The Modern is a luxury. The quiet atmosphere allows me to see, think, and hear myself think all while taking as much time in front of a work as possible. This is not to say that The Modern doesn't have very many visitors. In fact, it is quite the opposite. There just seems to be an unspoken rule of keeping voices to a minimum, and a commitment to allowing visitors to react to the art with as little distraction as possible.