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Music and the museum – how can exhibits inspire musical creativity?

SHHH! Museums are often thought of as being quiet spaces, for contemplation and learning. But some museums are embracing the power of music to create emotive and immersive experiences, reach new audiences and reinterpret their exhibits.

Music grabs our attention and tells stories. Think of Tarantino films. Jaws. Adverts where ‘Holidays are Coming’ and ‘I’m Lovin’ it’. Right through to the nursery rhymes we teach our children. Or Wagner’s Bridal March.

Music has power.

And music offers a way of expressing ourselves and connecting with others. Where words fail us, music can help us communicate. Music can offer new points of view and new interpretations.

Taking part in musical activities offers opportunities to socialize, enhances wellbeing, and builds skills.

So how can museums harness this power to inspire musical creativity, and enhance their exhibits?

Creative Participation

Recent findings from The Audience Agency took a look at creative participation, including several specific musical activities.

They found that pre-covid, 15% of the population played a musical instrument for pleasure, with 12% writing stories poetry, plays, or creating music, and 10% taking part in organized singing, amateur dramatics or dance. And these figures have stayed pretty much flat. Take a look at their presentation on these findings here.

And organisations are finding meaningful ways to include these activities in their programmes – and more. Music in museums can be a whisper or a roar. A private activity, or a performance.

Here are some ideas for building music into your programming.

Playlists

There’s a playlist for every occasion. You might have a playlist with your favourite BBQ music, a classic road trip selection or even a dramatic entrance playlist. How about one for visiting a museum?

Museums such as Louvre Abu Dhabi and Tate now offer curated music playlists to accompany their exhibitions.

At the Louvre, curators developed a series of 7 playlists to accompany artworks on display. The playlists were the result of intensive research and span numerous genres. Manuel Rabaté, Director of Louvre Abu Dhabi said “The playlists offer a new and innovative dimension for audiences to experience Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection through the universal language of music”. Listen to the playlists here.

The Tate have invited artists to curate their playlists, which you can hear here.  Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was the first artist to be invited to take part.

Curator Andrea Schlieker said “Music, and in particular the modal jazz compositions of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, have had a profound influence on Lynette’s paintings, so it seemed to make sense to offer viewers a more exciting alternative to the usual audio guide, one that transports the viewer/listener into the mood of the paintings.”

And visitors are creating museum inspired-playlists too. Songs for days out or dates, generic museum trips or playlists inspired by specific exhibits. Playlists offer a great easy entryway for visitors to think about museums musically.

Group Projects

At a deeper engagement level, museum outreach projects can introduce visitors to musical creativity.

At the Manchester Jewish Museum, a monthly song-writing group creates new music inspired by the museum’s exhibits and programme.  “This group is perfect for anyone who likes to sing, write creatively, play instruments or just loves to be part of something”, they say “It’s a great space to find new inspiration and share ideas with a supportive group.” These sessions are open to all – no musical background is needed, and work towards a performance at a pop-up space designed by The Royal Exchange Theatre.

Bristol Museum’s ‘Soundscape the Past’ project invited visitors to help make a soundscape for the gallery. “Pick an object or room that interests you, learn about it, and find your own way of communicating what it means to you.” the event promised, “Will you make prehistoric dubstep, an audio guide to ancient Egypt, or recreate the sounds of a wildlife habitat?”.

Paintings in Hospitals worked with carers to interpret a series of Kew Gardens posters from the London Transport Museum through audio. They worked with an engineer to record sounds from the gardens, which were mixed with 1920s-esque music to create their soundscape. Listen to the soundscape here. A participant commented, “Very satisfying at a difficult time for me [caring wise], a refreshing and stimulating change, which opened up new areas in creativity.”

Inspiring composers

While many outreach projects seek to inspire visitors with little or no musical background, museums also provide rich inspiration for composers and experienced musicians.

At The Bowes Museum, an exhibition of Quentin Blake’s drawings from the BFG was the inspiration for a new piece of music. “When I heard that The Bowes Museum had got this fantastic exhibition, it felt like a good moment to see if we could commission a special piece of music”, the Artistic Director of Durham Brass, Paul Gudgni explained, “The illustrations are fantastic, but also one of my thoughts was they have such widespread appeal. We thought we had a chance to create something that would appeal across the age ranges.” Durham Brass commissioned composer Nigel Hess to write a new work, which was performed at the museum.

A series of murals by Walter Anderson was the catalyst for the creation of a new piece of work by Grammy-nominated Luther Dickinson at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Mississippi. “…The phenomenon of hearing art or seeing music, I’ve never had that experience before except in this room,” he said, “Anderson’s murals come alive for me as orchestral score to an imagined animation.” The resulting composition is performed live each year. Watch a performance here.

Being noisy in a museum goes against the grain of these quiet contemplative spaces. But with some creative thinking we can use music in museum spaces to provide a valuable resource to visitors – and create an inspiring new interpretive thread.

Let’s break the rules and get noisy!

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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