Aural Postcard: The Smithsonian

Smithsonian-2IMG_0622I’ll preface this post by saying I almost missed my flight back to Vancouver because I was so set on visiting the museum of american history one more time. WOW. I could live in the Smithsonian area. I have actually been thinking about writing them a letter and begging them to give me a job. Any job, in one of the museums. I am trying to think now, writing this 3 years later, what was it that was so magical about the museum exhibits – the two big ones I spent the most time in – Natural history and American history. It wasn’t just the ‘tech’. In fact, I don’t feel like the exhibits were overly ‘tekkie’, rather there was a lot of effort to create a mis-en-scene for each individual exhibit. Something to draw one in and immerse them in the story of that artifact. A lot of detail to the physical structure of the exhibits, the material objects corresponding to its meaning – e.g. the first picture represents the ‘vietnam war’ which the exhibit calls the ‘television war’ – I was actually surprised at the level of however minor self critique. I really expected the museum of American history to be all about how great Amuhrica is. Which it was. To a degree. But it involved a combination, at each site, of official and popular culture materials/references to tell a story. So the TVs were tuned to reportage from the vietnam war and as a nice touch, the TVs represented the type of TVs one would find in that era. The second picture is from the Natural museum, and it is a giant suspended sphere with projections on it that display infographic data visualized across the whole globe – environmental statistics, oceans, plant and animal life, climate projections, etc. It was in its own blackspace room and the overall ambience level was really not that bad – 68dB!┬áHonestly, the tech and media exhibits were just wonderfully balanced with material displays, lights and sound. There was minimal bleeding from one exhibit to the next, so that each item/story makes you feel like you’re in a cocoon of a world, like being engrossed in a novel.


The two pics below show two different types of set designs – a big rotunda hallway with big exhibits, made so that people could linger and sit and basically serve as transitional space in between different thematic spaces. It is evidently louder due in part to the reverberation and resonance of the dome-like structure, and the fact that people raised their voices more and children had room to run around and shriek. The second picture is a typical controlled-path theme space where you are led by the exhibit in a sort of linear progression that itself tells a story (btw I really like that in contrast to a big open gallery space where you don’t know where you’re supposed to look first, second, third). So in this type of space, each exhibit is separated by a sort of theme presentation board. Enough to create a bit of sonic isolation so that if the exhibit contains sound it is not being heard all over the place. However, a bit of sound always makes its way into the centre space, almost as if to draw you in, a voice, a quality of recording that betrays its time period, interesting little cues that really reflect an attention to detail. I can’t remember but I think in addition to each exhibit, there might have been a PA announcement loop going in certain areas, that gave general information about a theme space – e.g. in the WWII area. I think I liked most the different quality of sound in the different historical periods, it definitely really made it feel like you’re transported there. Smithsonian, please take me!

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