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Music in Museums

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.

Music in Museums

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.

This article is no longer available online at Curator: The Museum Journal.

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