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Review: Museum of Portable Sound

15 January 2021

As part of our Ten Songs for a Lar project during the final days of 2020, Elizabeth Hall managed to sneak in a quick cultural excursion to the Museum of Portable Sound. Hall discusses her visit and catches up with the mastermind behind the museum, John Kannenberg.

Museum of Portable Sound Director John Kannenberg hosting visitors during a 2019 Friday Late event at the V&A. Photograph by Hydar Dewachi.

Review: Museum of Portable Sound

A trip to Museum of Portable Sound is certainly an experience you will never forget. And how often do visitors get the chance to have a 1:1 session with a director and curator? Well, this is your chance! Explore ‘sounds as objects of culture’ with artist, writer, founder, curator, director (and I am sure more) John Kannenberg. The museum was founded in 2015, and its extensive collection (and visitor guide) remarkably is made accessible through Kannenberg’s iPhone 4s. Divided into 30 galleries, you can find sounds such as Sigmund Freud’s toilet and King Tutankhamun’s trumpets among the 325 objects which can be heard during your visit.

With the recent Covid-19 lockdown measures, the museum is now brought to you online. My own visit was certainly a different experience but one which I will definitely be doing again. With so much to undoubtedly organise and look after in the museum, Kannenberg was surprisingly amendable, completely relatable and any initial concerns about potential awkwardness or alienating pretence were broken by a good laugh and joke.

Communicating via Google Meetings and following a PDF version of the visitor guidebook, I was able to explore the galleries and objects which were of interest to me. Kannenberg was always on hand to provide any additional information or answer any queries I had about particular objects (sounds) within the collection. Since 2003 John has been making audio recording for the museum with sounds ranging from the everyday to the really quite unexpected and unique. One object that stood out to me in particular was ‘Track 8: Creek’, found in the ‘Weather and Water’ gallery. It was a really unusual sound and something I can’t imagine I would have ever heard before. Initially, I was expecting gushing or trickling sounds but what I heard was a popping, snapping and swelling. Kannenberg informed me that the ‘Plumbing, Heating and Cooling’ exhibit was actually “one of the most popular galleries” in the museum. It appears the sound of flushing toilets and whirling extractor fans is of common interest to the human race. In fact wading through, aurally, the familiar, unfamiliar, and in some cases surreal sounds of the museum is one of the delights and joys that an escape into the collections provides.

If you’re looking for ways to fill your day in these uncertain, and somewhat restricted times, do take a visit to the Museum of Portable Sound (Online). You will not regret it.

 

The map given to Museum of Portable Sound visitors laying out the conceptual design of the museum’s galleries of sounds. Map designed by John Kannenberg.

Q&A with the founder and director of the Museum of Portable Sound, John Kannenberg

1. Why did you decide to found Museum of Portable Sound? What inspired you?

It wasn’t so much a single inspiration as it was a lengthy process. I’d been making field recordings (essentially, just audio recording stuff that happens out in the world instead of in a recording studio) for almost twenty years and at first I’d used the recordings as sound sources that I could manipulate to try to make experimental music – and by that I basically mean sampling non-musical sounds to try to make music out of them. It never felt 100% natural for me to be doing that, and I don’t think I was particularly good at it.

I went back to school for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree at the University of Michigan (the US equivalent of a doctorate for artists) in 2009. While I was there I also enrolled in their graduate-level Museum Studies certification programme, and as part of that we were asked to complete a curatorial internship that was somehow related to our primary course. Mine was a generic ‘studio art’ course, but they wanted something specifically related to what I was doing as an artist, and my primary preoccupation was with sound – so I needed to try to find a curatorial internship at a museum of sound. All I was finding were internships at sound archives and libraries with sound collections, but no museums, and I started wondering why the collection of sound was so compartmentalised in the cultural heritage sector.

We also spent a lot of time in Museum Studies discussing the philosophical questions surrounding objects, like what exactly is an object? I’d been interested in the 20th century composer Pierre Schaeffer’s notion of the ‘sound object’ for many years as part of the experimental music scene – Schaeffer is considered the ‘grandfather of sampling’ for his work with early techniques of recording and manipulating non-musical sounds and making experimental music with them. But his ideas about sound objects, although extremely influential, had begun to fall out of favour in the experimental music scene – Schaeffer’s sound object theories were developed via his own reading of the phenomenology of Husserl, and lots of contemporary philosophers and sound scholars have fundamental objections to Schaeffer’s ideas and outcomes.

Kind of naturally, I started thinking about the idea of sounds as museum objects – why didn’t I know of any museums that specifically collected and displayed sounds? Why was it always libraries and archives? Could it have something to do with the nature of objects, and specifically the difficulties of thinking about sounds as distinct objects freed from the context of musical sampling? In Museum Studies, we were always being challenged to think from the museum audience’s point of view, and it was fairly obvious that, broadly speaking, most general museum audiences don’t think about sounds as objects, they probably don’t know about Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘reduced listening’ phenomenology, and yet when they hear the word ‘sound’ they probably most often think of it in a musical context.

So I started to think about what would happen if you took recordings of ordinary, non-musical sounds – things like the sound of a train, or crickets, or street crossing signals, or even the sounds of visiting museums – and overplayed them with the taxonomies that museums have traditionally used to categorise the worlds of culture and science. So I came up with 4 main topics under which to organise specially selected sounds I had in my own collection of field recordings: Natural History, Science & Technology, Architecture & Urban Design, and Art & Culture. I had lots of material I could work with under those categories, and from there a series of sub-categories sprang up – stuff like ‘Animals’, ‘Weather’, ‘Audio Interfaces’, ‘Interiors’, ‘Fountains’, ‘Archaeology’, ‘Protest’, etc. – and those became ‘galleries’. And once I had that thought through, I realised that I didn’t need a physical space to present this kind of museum, I could just put these sounds, with this kind of organisational structure, onto an iPod or a mobile phone and have people listen to them that way.

I had spent almost 15 years running an online record label, where I presented sound works for free download, and I realised that now with things like Spotify, recorded sounds aren’t thought of as particularly special – sound recordings are just kind of etheric, and something we expect to have 24/7 access to online. So I decided to not put the sounds online, and make the mobile phone I put my sound collection on into my museum’s ‘building’ so people would have to visit in person. That exclusivity made the sounds seem special, or ‘museum-quality’, because you couldn’t just listen to them anywhere at any time. Visitors to my museum had to make an appointment with themselves to sit down and listen – which is what makes my museum work. It can’t be an app or a website you can listen to anywhere, because people would never actually listen to it; if they did, it would be background noise to distract them from a commute or doing chores. I wanted my museum’s visitors to think about what they were listening to and why they were being asked to listen to it.

And that’s why I’ve been able to translate the original in-person experience to video chatting online, because visits to my museum have always been a conversation between the visitor, the museum’s sounds, and me.

A Museum of Portable Sound visitor listens to its Glitches Gallery in the café at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London. Photograph by John Kannenberg.

2. The visitor guide mentions ‘recent acquisitions’. Will members of the public be able to donate objects (audio or physical) in the future?

We definitely accept donations to the Physical Objects Collection from the general public; this has happened quite often actually, but we don’t accept everything we are offered, and neither do we pay people for physical objects they want to unload. Everything in the museum’s collections, both physical and sonic, are in the museum for a reason that relates to our curatorial strategies.

In terms of the general public donating sounds, we are absolutely not interested in doing that. Again, it goes back to our curatorial strategies and wanting to tell very specific stories about the history and culture of sound, especially sound that is non-musical. There have been a number of sounds donated to the Permanent Collection Galleries by people other than myself, but all of them have been specifically requested by me. Although the museum feels huge when sitting down for a visit, for a museum of time-based objects it’s still extremely small – less than 10 hours of audio.

I’m interested in this museum having a distinct identity from other projects having to do with sound, and one of the trendiest things possible in that realm is to crowd-source audio recordings and slap them onto a Google Map and throw it up on a website – so I will almost certainly never do anything like that. Crowd-sourcing isn’t just trendy amongst the sound world, it’s also hip within museum practice – but part of what makes my museum feel like a real museum are some of the unreasonable things I do that are somewhat anti-museum practice, like not just putting the sounds up on a website and making them more accessible. By making the sounds less accessible, it makes them feel more like authentic museum objects.

It’s those kinds of contradictions that power this project, and that’s where my role as an artist really comes in. I make a lot of decisions that wouldn’t make sense to a traditional museum curator, and I also make a lot of decisions that wouldn’t make sense to a ‘sound artist’. MOPS is constantly moving back and forth between two worlds, sound and museums. It also embraces absurdist humour in ways that most museums never would. For example, when I did in-person visits, I offered a free coat check: I would take the visitor’s coat, put it next to me, and give them a ticket which they then handed back to me at the end of their visit to retrieve their coat. That’s absurd. When you do that at a big museum, it feels totally normal, but when you do that with a guy who’s sitting across the table from you, it feels ridiculous. Except, that behaviour, of handing over your personal belongings to an authority figure, is an indelible component of the museum experience. It’s making the decisions to do these kinds of things, and then following through and actually doing them, imposing them on unsuspecting visitors who aren’t in on the joke, that I think moves MOPS into the realm of being a piece of art.

A father and daughter visit Museum of Portable Sound at a street-side London café in 2019. Photograph by John Kannenberg.

3. Where do you see the museum going in the next 5 years? Are you looking to have a more fixed location or building?

For the past five years I’ve been telling every museum professional I meet that my ultimate goal is for my museum (and therefore, me) to be acquired by a large institution like the British Museum, or the V&A, and then I essentially become a staff member of that museum whose job is to sit in a gallery there all day and let the museum’s visitors listen to my mobile. I’ve done events like that very often, including a sell-out event at the V&A during one of their Friday Lates where I had a queue of more than a hundred people waiting to sit at a table with me and spend 15 minutes listening to my phone. I would carry on with my own sound collecting and field recording when I wasn’t at the museum and would just keep updating the museum for the rest of my life. I’m going to do it anyway, so I think it would behoove a major museum to realise the benefits of having a permanent sound curator who has experience interacting with diverse publics to be on-hand as a living exhibit. And every museum professional I’ve mentioned it to has thought it’s a great idea. So someone just needs to take the risk and make it happen!

4. Will online visits to the museum continue after the lockdown?

Absolutely. Now that I’ve developed a way to do online visits, I want to continue making the museum accessible to people anywhere in the world. What will be great if things ever go back to normal is that there will be even more incentive for people to visit the museum in person, because there’s such a difference between the online and the in-person experience. I think both types of visits can live alongside each other pretty comfortably.

In 2020, Museum of Portable Sound began hosting visitors online via video chat. This group visit was commissioned by the curatorial staff of the New York Public Library’s Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound. Screenshot by John Kannenberg.

5. Is there a limit to how long you can spend at the museum?

Before coronavirus, when I was meeting visitors in person, and while I was running the museum as research for a PhD, I never limited people’s visit time. But now having shifted to online visits because of lockdown, I try to keep the visits to about an hour or so. People get very fidgety and exhausted during video chats, and the last thing I want to do is make people exhausted. Plus, in trying to make this into an economically sustainable enterprise, I can’t really afford to let people only pay me ten pounds and then take up my entire day! I’m trying to book as many visits as I can to give people all over the world a chance to listen to the museum, so I need to keep the visit lengths down to no more than a couple hours at a time.

6. Has the museum been popular with a particular demographic? E.g. Children, young people, couples, families, etc.

Mostly middle-aged academics, 20-something MA students, and 30-something museum professionals! Honestly, that seems to be who visits the most. There’s no single demographic that really sticks out, although it’s museum people who seem to have the most enthusiasm for it.

Many Museum of Portable Sound visits are lively conversations between one visitor, the museum’s curator, and the museum’s sounds. Screenshot by John Kannenberg.

7. Do you have any plans to engage with particular community groups in the future? E.g. care homes, dementia cafe’s, youth centre, etc. If not, would you consider this as an outreach opportunity for the museum?

One of my all-time favourite experiences running this museum was when a friend of mine who volunteered with the elderly brought a woman who was nearly 100 years old to visit my museum in a small café in London. She loved listening to the sounds, and they would trigger stories that she told me, sometimes over and over again. She was so engaged with it, and so happy the whole time she had the headphones on. So yes, that kind of work is definitely something I’m hoping to do in the future, but so much of what I’m able to do is limited by the museum itself not being financially sustainable at the moment. I need to get infrastructure funding somehow first. The possibilities for this project are basically limitless, but I need to be able to support myself somehow in order to actually be able to do the work.

In November of 2021, Museum of Portable Sound will be hosting the museum’s first academic conference. The final line-up of presentations will be posted soon at: www.museumofportablesound.com/mopsconference/

A new publication ‘The Museum of Portable Sound Handbook of Unfortunate Representations of Sound in Contemporary Visual Culture’ is scheduled for release this year.

This year will also see the publishing of the second free online exhibition on the museums website. ALPHABETS: The Building Blocks of the Spoken Word, features recordings the museum has collected of people reciting the alphabet in over 30 different languages.

www.museumofportablesound.com
www.johnkannenberg.com

Review and Q&A by Elizabeth Hall, Heritage and Interpretation (MA) and volunteer project assistant for Ten Songs for a Lar.

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