Breaking the (Museum of) Sound Barrier: An interview with John Kannenberg

Katherine Richmond

Katherine Richmond, krichmond@museumoflondon.org.uk, is Registrar at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN


In this age of digital news and social media, our lives have become portable. The Museum of Portable Sound is a reflection on this, being both a sign of the times in its boundary-breaking approach, yet also a catalogue of the way in which sound has been used, experienced and perceived over time since we first were able to record it. This mobile museum was established in November 2015 in London, UK and allows visitors to arrange their experience on a one-to-one basis with the curator, or in small groups at a location and time of their choice. Though portable, the museum has galleries, temporary exhibitions and education programmes. With the museum set to receive its 1,000th visitor any day, I spoke with Director and Chief Curator, John Kannenberg about the development of the museum he has built, how it fosters human connections, and its place within the lexicon of museology and sound art.

Where did the idea start to create a Museum of Portable Sound?

JK: I was an artist working with sounds; I was collecting field recordings of the sounds of museums at the time, but I had been making field recordings of all kinds for over a decade at that point. When I began my PhD course at the University of Arts London, I began thinking it might be a good opportunity to figure out how to make a proper sound museum [inspired by JK’s struggle to find a suitable internship during his MA programme]. I began down an entirely different path, writing up a detailed outline for a physical museum I envisioned being the size of the British Museum. I came to the realisation that this crazy concept of mine really boiled down to that one thing: the museological display of sounds as objects, in an analogous manner to the physical objects in vitrines. I needed to figure out how to display sounds in a way that could convey this idea.

What does a visit consist of?

JK: Potential visitors contact me via the museum’s website arranging a visit. Admission is free. When we meet up, I give the visitor my phone, a map of the museum (which they can keep), and a printed Gallery Guide which contains all the “tombstone” labels for the objects, and all of the things that would usually be displayed on the walls of a proper museum. I show them how to match up the sounds on the phone with the information in the Gallery Guide, and then they’re free to explore the museum however they wish.

There are currently 200 sounds, organised into 23 themed galleries, and it’s about 5 hours of listening material, so the museum is large enough to get lost in. Since I don’t put limits on how long a person can stay, often the visits last several hours.

After they finish listening, we then almost always have a long conversation – about their experience of my museum, their experiences at other museums, sounds they remember that they now realise have been important to them – and it turns into a fantastic opportunity for meaning-making via my collection.

A lot of people have said that once they’ve listened to a couple of objects and start deciding “where to go”. They wander off, get lost, some people have said that they lose the feeling of being in one place and time.

Where does the inspiration come from for your content?

JK: Over the years there’ve been certain types of things I’ve always been drawn to record: bells, traffic light signals, plumbing and heating systems, birds, the sounds of visual art being made, public transit, waterfalls…also anything broken or malfunctioning. I have a gallery of glitches in the museum that includes the sound of a broken MacBook on display in the Apple store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and it’s one of the museum’s most popular sounds. When I first started collecting sounds, I was trying to isolate the sounds of things from the sounds of people – I was trying to get these utopian sounds of things without all these bothersome people noises like talking or coughing or their shoes squeaking on the floor. Now I love getting that stuff. So I’m no longer interested in sounds in and of themselves – I’m interested in sounds at work inside their cultural contexts.

In the sound art world ‘Sound artefact’ has a completely different meaning. Is there a tension created by putting sound in a museum?

JK: Yes, it is very strange that they chose the label ‘artefact’ for this. I find it counterintuitive to call something unwanted an artefact, but this word so often has crossed meanings in the context of museums, archaeology and the sound art world. Sound art theorists had come to frown upon the idea of sound as an object, so when I would talk to them about sound objects they would tell me to forget about it. However, when I would mention it to museum theorists, they thought it was intriguing. The worst response I’ve received about my museum was from a sound artist, but it turned out that he had a general disgust for museums in general because he found their didacticism too oppressive.

What is the importance of the way you facilitate the visits (i.e. in person)?

JK: At first I wasn’t sure how much value my presence added to the experience for the visitors, but it quickly became apparent that for many of them, having me there to talk to about the experience was really helpful. I think that’s partially because the content of the museum seems to stimulate memories and ideas in the visitors, and for the most part they seem eager to talk about them. I think being able to have a dialogue about the act of listening, and to talk about listening with someone who wants to listen to what they have to say, plays a large part in the overall experience. A lot of sound art tends to emphasise solitary acts of listening – the Zen-like field recordist demonstrating some deeply mystical connection to the sounds of the universe, that sort of thing. But this project has really brought home for me the knowledge that everyone who is capable of hearing is listening in their own way, and we all can learn things about listening by just listening to each other. It’s been really eye- and ear-opening.

Do you think there are any limitations in the scope of who can access the museum in its current form, or does the format allow you to be more inclusive?

JK: There is a certain reliance on booking via the internet which could be a potential limitation as the internet is not as universal as people like to think it is. I have also conducted visits with people spontaneously though, on the street or at social gatherings. A lot of the success of the project has been through word of mouth, so there’s a possibility of opening this up more. I fully recognise that some people may be alienated by the potentially elitist barrier of having to meet with a person in order to visit. Sound and music generally have traditionally always had gatekeepers (think of the record store attendant) and a sense of connoisseurship that can foster an attitude of exclusivity. I want to find more ways to open up the museum in the future, but was heartened recently when a visitor with experience in advocating for people with disabilities fed back that the museum worked well as an IOS-based structure rather than have a bespoke app, as everything visual is described by audio.

In terms of decolonising museums and bringing to light underrepresented narratives, do you think this is a factor that needs to be engaged with in your museum?

JK: I have been thinking about this a lot. I am essentially a white guy with my own viewpoint and although I think a lot about other perspectives, whatever I’m recording is coming via my perspective. I have tried to be as inclusive as I can within the content, but I have struggled with the decision to include some recordings that share an insight into other cultures, as I feel it would be preferable to have other contributors who can deal with this in a more authentic way.

What does the future hold for the Museum of Portable Sound?

JK: Currently I’m speaking with some other artists in different countries about trying to open up local franchises of the Museum of Portable Sound, like the Guggenheim and the Louvre. That would then open up the possibility of touring my objects to other cities, and bring the collections that would be created by the other artists to my own branch of the museum. I’ve also been learning about more and more portable museums around the world, so I’ve been working on starting an International Association of Portable Museums, which would hopefully spawn a conference and a network of other like-minded institutions. We’ve also got a publishing branch, Museum of Portable Sound Press, and so far I’ve released the MOPS Gallery Guide through it, but I would love to be able to publish other people’s work that relates to the museum’s concept. I’d love to put together a collection of writing about sounds as objects of human culture.

If you could acquire one item into the collection right now, be it a physical thing or a sound exhibit, what would it be and why?

JK: We do have a Physical Objects Collection, and the one thing I want more than anything else for it right now is a Nagra IV-S reel-to-reel tape recorder, because it was the first tape recorder that made field recording possible on a large scale. It’s the classic model that was used to gather sounds by researchers in the World Soundscape Project, and the golden age of film sound designers like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. In terms of recordings, an authentic recording of a guy (because it’s almost always a guy) in an art museum, standing in front of either a Jackson Pollock or a Cy Twombly, and saying unironically ‘My kid could do that.’

To find out more or to visit the Museum of Portable Sound: www.museumofportablesound.com

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