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Music in Museums

This article on music in museums was originally published on the Curator: The Museum Journal web page in advance of their special issue on sound in 2019.

I saw the first major survey of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s work at an exhibition organized by the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., at the end of 2016. The talk of the exhibition was Woman in E (2016), featuring a succession of live performers rotating through a perpetual strumming of that single note on an electric guitar. You could hear this work throughout the museum so it announced itself and stirred the imagination long before you arrived at the site of the performance.

Almost any audio-based work is going to invade other parts of a museum and therefore interfere with other works of art. The hushed default of the museum experience means that the artworks in room A are not presuming to invade the experience of people in room B. It’s a kind of civilized discretion that respects the silence of the other artworks. People who talk loudly in museums are looked down upon; artwork that talks loudly may be seen in the same way. We generally don’t want one work to overstep its natural sphere and infringe on an experience in another gallery.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors

Woman in E certainly infringes, but that was not the artwork that captured me. It was instead a slightly quieter piece, The Visitors (2012). This video installation is partly about music and its seductive power, and it also forces the issue of sound in museums. I saw The Visitors again at the Cincinnati Art Museum this past May. There, it was not sonically overshadowed by Woman in E, as it had been at the Hirshhorn. The music from The Visitors served as a kind of siren song pulling you in from other galleries. Intentionally or not, the work steals part of your consciousness from other artists.

In both installations, the museum visitor encounters The Visitors by walking into what appears to be the house of a rambling southern estate (although it’s actually a farm in upstate New York). The rooms are populated by an assortment of young musicians and a crowd of hangers-on, who are all singing a song for you. They do this for 64 minutes.

For context, the average time spent in front of a masterwork at the Met was measured in 2001 at roughly 30 seconds. It’s possible that this has decreased since 2001 as smartphones have steadily eroded our attention spans. When an artwork is not a destination for a visitor, engagement is more like 3 to 5 seconds. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three and they are gone, on to the next work. That’s normal for most people. I am guilty of this too, of course. You have to choose what to eat at a smorgasbord. That said, I spent 64 minutes with Kjartansson’s The Visitors.


It is not really fair to compare a painting to a performance piece. But 64 minutes is still a very long time to hold someone’s attention and the particular way in which Kjartansson effectively inserts genre-bending performance art into the traditionally quiet museum environment has a powerful captivating effect. It is striking for its dependence on music and musical performance, for its immersive quality, and for its presumption to pull you from other galleries and take up so much of your precious time.

I was not alone in my lingering. Others stayed as I did, sitting or standing in fascination with this work. Children too.

The Visitors falls into the art-world category of video art, a stepchild of performance art. With some exceptions, I am usually not a fan of video art. The Visitors proves to be a monumental exception.

I am mesmerized by its grandeur, humor, nonchalance, conceit, virtuosity, balls, performance value and intricateness. I marvel at its capacity to enthrall with such seemingly simple means, its ability to create a sense of tension and suspense with so few ideas, few notes and few words. The words of the song repeat hundreds of times and the exact phrase was never actually clear to me until I saw it on a YouTube clip as a title. My misreading of the lyrics did nothing to diminish my engagement.

Tale of two curators

The Hirshhorn’s installation was spread out, making it impossible to see all nine screens at once, so I was forced to walk around as if I was walking from room to room through the mansion where it was filmed. As I walked in front of each room, that room’s vocal or instrumental contribution to the dirge comes to the forefront and is highlighted so you hear their particular voice and instrument in the chorus of all the others. This has an extraordinarily immersive effect. You are in the house. You are walking around in a live performance. As you walk closer, your head gets in the picture.

My museum engagement was strongly catalyzed by the potent combination of visuals, music and sound design.

At the Cincinnati Art Museum, all nine screens were arranged around one room with seats in the middle so that you could, if you chose, plop yourself down and watch the whole thing from one spot. This may have been a concession to the available exhibition space, but it did not force you to engage with the work in the same way. That said, I enjoyed it a great deal because I did not feel as strongly compelled to dart here and there to make sure I was not missing some part of the action. Mind you there is not much “action” except the cannon shot in the middle and a few instrument changes on the part of some of the performers. But there was a strong sense of tension and drama in the setting and I found myself working to figure out the configuration of the house. How were the rooms arranged in relation to one another? Could the musicians see each other? What would happen next? How would it end? What are they saying? What does this all mean? It’s enough to keep me watching and listening in a way that’s somewhat baffling because the means are so minimal. There is no plot, not much of a narrative, and little progress in the song, since it is mostly a repetition of the same phrase.

The tension and engagement were there in both installations, but the sense of being in the house and the sense that you are in the middle of a live performance was greater at the Hirshhorn because of the spread of the work. Having all the rooms accessible from a single vantage point lets you off the hook a bit. This ease of consumption is in line with the tendency of most consumer entertainment. I would argue that it reduced the effectiveness of the work somewhat. It made me less likely to walk up close to each performer to hear what his or her contribution was. It made me less anxious that I might be missing some action happening in another room. It is the scarcity of the action that heightens the desire not to miss anything. Small things are momentous. I don’t want to be over in the back when the cannon goes off or the girl in the bed moves around! The buildup of drama from such minimal means is one of the most impressive aspects of the work.

My engagement was strongly catalyzed by the potent combination of visuals, music and sound design.

Music in museums: Why is it so rare?

Is quiet part of the essential value proposition of museums? Is an art museum, for example, meant to provide a kind of dampening field for the other senses so that sight can have free rein? Museums are indeed a very special kind of public space. Their likeness in the public sphere is rare and I agree that this should be cherished. But it should also be examined.

Is quiet part of the essential value proposition of museums?

Most art museums are born from collections. Collections are quiet. We are usually asked to enjoy them in quiet. We are required to be sensitive to the subtleties of the messages and the meaning of the art, often with little assistance. This is a pastime for the patient. And yet the reality of most museums, as noted above, is that people don’t spend nearly as much time with the art as we might hope.

The quiet of museums—standing out as it does from so many other types of public space—is certainly one reason so many people like them. It’s a good reason: We are bombarded with noise in so much of our everyday lives that it’s a relief to luxuriate in a public space optimized for quiet contemplation. But silence also causes art museums to lose people who might be otherwise obtainable as an audience. My 14-year-old son, when I force him to accompany me to a museum, solves his occasional inability to connect with the artwork by wearing headphones and adding a personal soundtrack to his experience.

Royal experiment

I was recently given a taste of an experimental teen-focused program at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. The program involved some very thoughtful musical insertions into sections of the museum as a way to bring art alive for teens. It worked pretty well for me, drawing me in to a part of the collection I would certainly have passed by without paying much attention. The music in my case was a love ballad from the same period as some of the works in a gallery with an odd collection of medieval and renaissance hearts. The experience was mesmerizing. It activated synapses that would have been dormant in the quiet company of the artworks. I don’t have the sensitivity. Intrigued and held in place, my normal unwillingness to bother was short-circuited by this musical intervention.

Part of this effect can be attributed to the sheer novelty of hearing music in an art museum, but the fact remains that the needle moved for me. It was a stark contrast: In one moment, an utter lack of interest, and in the next moment, I am standing in rapt attention, puzzling over the assorted art hearts on display.

Music works on different parts of the brain, including parts that are unlikely to activate with visual stimuli alone, so there is something to be gained by experiments of this kind. It is, however, an intrusive curatorial addition. It was certainly not conceived by the creators of the heart works.

Fear of failure

It is also important to note that the Royal Museums of Art and History include a Musical Instrument Museum, so the institution has trained musical historians who can help curate such a sonic addition to the gallery. In general, art museums prefer to be quiet not only by tradition but also by discipline. The “music people” of the world are not normally in positions of curatorial authority. This experiment I witnessed (it is not ongoing) was a discipline mashup conceived by the education department, not curatorial. It was not a natural occurrence and it was not allowed to upset the core definition or fundamental power structure of the institution. The temporary admission of musical accompaniment to the institution’s very precious objects did not alter the institution’s focus on collections.

This discipline mashup reflects a fundamental tension surrounding the definition of museums: Are we primarily in the business of collecting and conserving, or are we in the business of engaging, educating and entertaining the public? These different definitions are negotiated and maintained by organizational tradition, values and philosophy, financial allocation and staff organization. Few museums have musicologists on staff and few artists represented in art museums are putting sound or music at the center of their work.

Are museums primarily in the business of collecting and conserving, or are we in the business of engaging, educating and entertaining the public?

Usually, therefore, a soundtrack to the experience of visual art is an instance of the curator adding an additional set of stimuli and thoughts that influence the viewer’s experience of the work. I know this is something that curators are loath to expose, and the fear of making a mistake in an area outside of one’s academic expertise—the fear of failure—is understandably strong.

But all curators are influencing the viewer’s experience within their realm of expertise—they’re just doing so in a way that usually operates outside of the visitor’s conscious awareness. Professional courtesy keeps curators from overtly telling the viewer what to think and feel. This is out of respect for the work and for the visitor. But neutrality is not a real thing. We can only pretend to be neutral or subtly hide our intent. Every curatorial choice down to the lighting is a dialog with the work. At every step, the curator is contributing his or her ideas. The real question is how much we want to expose the dialog between the curator and the work. When do you choose to speak loudly enough to be consciously noticed by the visitor?

Music is an instance of assertiveness that would expose the curator’s role and do so in a realm that curators may find uncomfortable. So mostly the curators stay back behind the scenes. This leaves artists like Kjartansson to take the stage. More power to him.

Curators and exhibition designers could step forward a bit more. I doubt there is much danger of music becoming the norm in museums, but its capacity to selectively enhance engagement is quite real. It is a standing principle for any organization: If you are not taking risks or doing at least some things that make you feel uncomfortable, you are not living up to your responsibility to lead in a world where there are far too many followers, too many players in the groove of the tried and true. Failure is an option, and a good one if the learning you take away from it makes you better.

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