On my first visit to the Royal BC Museum, shortly before starting work here, I found myself wanting to close my eyes while traveling the galleries. Not because I wasn’t won over by the visual appeal of the dioramas, but the sounds, the second layer of sensory display, were calling out to me: Slow down. Listen. Don’t forget us. And once I did, once I slowed down and really heard the complexity of this sonic offering, I was hooked. The telegraph key tapping, for example, and the gentle chirping of crickets in the train station, framed by the rhythmic clacking of the passing train… I had the impulse to stop other visitors passing by and say, Did you hear that?
I never did stop anyone that day. But once I began working at the museum, I decided to create an event that was an opportunity to slow down and be enveloped in a visual and an auditory experience. In 2012 we launched this project with an evening called Site and Sound. Site and Sound brought performative installation to the galleries, that is, performing arts that interacted specifically with these unique spaces: live classical Chinese music at the entrance of the Human History gallery, bluegrass in the Farm diorama area, an immersive soundscape in Old Town, spoken word poetry in the Majestic Theatre, jokes told to the totem poles in the First Peoples gallery, and much more. Over two hours, the audience could go wherever they wished, and stay as long as they wanted in any one area. In this way, the audience guided their experience, and each experience was unique.
The Royal BC Museum is an environment that can become deeply familiar. The familiar can be comforting, but it tends to lull us to sleep. The unexpected wakes us up, allows for fresh experience, and for new insights, connections and discoveries. Science, whether it’s social or natural science, is about expanding the boundaries of knowledge. We further our understanding of the world around us by jumping into the unknown.
In 2013 we repeated the experiment. This time, titled the Museum Amplification Project, we brought in new artists, and added the layers of video projection, dance, and an embrace of noise. I was interested in pushing the creative potential of discord: sonic clash between participating artists, with artists and their museum environment, and with audience expectation. The effect was immediate. Animated horses circled the wooly mammoth, dancing to sinister alterations to the usual gallery sounds. Lasers projected on the forest dome created a tranquil version of the Northern Lights, while overhead projectors threw cascading shapes, created by water and colour, onto the back wall of the seashore diorama, vibrating with noise like some threatening new species.
Check out more videos from the Natural History gallery at our Museum Amplification Project playlist.
It was that flow between what we know and what we don’t, what we intuitively wish to dive into and what we want to look away from, that provides interesting, creative tension. And ultimately speaks to our lived reality. We are constantly negotiating comfort and discomfort, and art and museums can help us better understand this state.
The embrace of noise continued on the third floor in the Modern History gallery and in the seldom seen freight elevator beside Century Hall. We opened it up, like a new display, showcasing the industrial landscape with a live electro-acoustic soundscape. In Old Town, contemporary dancers in period costumes improvised fluidly throughout the spaces of the gallery. We set up a live video feed from the train station to the Majestic Theatre screen, creating an ever-changing visual experience.
It was this noisy juxtaposition of various performative intentions and the existing museum displays that provided opportunities for quiet and contemplation.
Like the cricket sounds after the passing train.
This article first appeared in Curious Quarterly.
Site and Sound artists:
Janet Rogers, Peter Morin, Dave Morris, Missie Peters, The Victoria Gum Sing Musical Society, Paul Walde, Tina Pearson, Kathy Rogers, Garrett Tompson, Shanti Bremer and the Victoria Phonographers Union.
Museum Amplification Project artists:
Kate and Thomas Shields, Aimée van Drimmelen, Kees Dekker, Anthony Sampson, Tom Sampson, Bill Levity, Hanna Williamson, Rae Gallimore, Bronwyn Kure, Elise Cassidy, Richard Minardi, Limbic Media, Jeremy Loveday, Lee Hutzulak, Caroline Liffman, Melanie Kuxdorf.