Sound art

Kunst sollte wie ein Klang, eine Melodie in unserem Museum sein
Thomas Schmid-Dankward, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Hearing allows us to overcome the boundaries of time and space. Through acoustic art in particular we can experience exhibits directly, along with their histories and the rhythms of their presentation, for acoustic art is an all-embracing, “warm” category of art that aims to get the audience participating emotionally; it creates a reality in the listener’s mind within seconds. Acoustic art is thus capable of equipping the rooms of a museum with an additional level: by means of sound, noise, rhythm, language, and human or animal voices it can establish connections in the sphere of cultural and everyday history, right in the middle of a physical exhibition space. This enables a different kind of knowledge to be experienced directly by the listener, and perhaps even intensified.

The Museum für Naturkunde is a fascinating place that brings together overlapping thematic, temporal, and disciplinary fields under a single roof. This densely packed and multilayered representation of the histories of science, culture, exhibitions, and research is reflected in the structure itself. A prestigious public building such as the Museum für Naturkunde appeals to visitors not only at a scientific level, but also sensually.

The tactile eye is drawn to the elegant, naturally knowledgeable, and of course lovingly arranged presentation of the museum’s collections. My gaze, often led by a subtle but open dramatic composition, repeatedly feels its way towards new exhibits and the new areas of knowledge that they embody. It is clear to the visitor from the very first glance that a great treasure trove of knowledge lies below the surface of the museum’s collections. Sound art can add an echo chamber to this impression, emphasising just how rich the treasure truly is, and how stories and histories can be found lurking behind every exhibit.

During tours behind the scenes of the museum, my sense of smell was similarly awakened. It told me of the building’s parallel history – a story of wood and metal from the eighteenth century, and of linoleum and disinfectant dating back to the East German era. The sense of hearing serves a similar function, not only as an emotional connection to the past, but also recalling memories and sparking the imagination. I interpret all these soft markers as discrete, immaterial codifications within the “natural history museum biotope” that can be drawn out by sound artists and embedded into an artistic dialogue.

Ideally, the artists will adopt the role of explorers using alternative means, working in close cooperation with the museum staff. The acoustic parallel worlds that they create will augment the scientific narrative with an additional realm of experience.

Gaby Hartel is the curator for sound art, a cultural historian, radio author, and exhibition curator.


Vogelsaal © Museum für Naturkunde / Carola Radke