museum sound design Asbjoern Andersen


This summer, I got the chance to visit the Moesgaard Museum (MOMU) in Aarhus, Denmark – a recently-rebuilt, state-of-the-art, and highly-praised museum dedicated to archaeology and ethnography.

One of the things that really impressed me was the sound – it was incredibly effective at setting the scene, telling stories and bringing everything to life.

And thankfully, I can now share the story behind those sounds, in this special feature on museum sound, written by MOMU composer and sound designer Soren Bendixen. Here, he shares how museum sound is created today, and gives you some real-world examples of how he’s using sound to bring history (and in some cases, the dead!) back to life:


Written by Soren Bendixen, photos by Foto/ Medie Afdelingen, Moesgaard Museum, Jacob Gonge Due



For the past 6 years I have mainly worked as a composer and sound designer for cultural heritage museums in Denmark. I have a background as a musician, composer, producer, venue manager, music consultant, music teacher – in short, a life in music.

In 2008 I released “Debut”, a digital Ep with my own music, and it caught the attention of exhibition architect Ole Birch Nielsen. He hired me to create the music for the exhibition “City Pulse” at Museum Jutland, and the exhibition turned out to be a great success. Subsequently I was affiliated for two years with the museum as resident composer, then moved on Gl. Estrup Agriculture Museum and created a sound design for an exhibition about the war in 1864 (the one we lost ..!). Since 2014 I have been involved with projects at Moesgaard Museum, near Aarhus. In 2014, Moesgaard opened a new exhibition building, which in a short time, has become a genuine attraction.

To date, I´ve created 3 major sound designs, respectively; “Lives of the Dead”, which is part of the permanent exhibition section, as well as special exhibitions, “The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army” and “Gladiator – The Heroes of Colosseum”.
 

The sonic element

As a composer, I have always been fascinated by the sonic element. So it was no problem to include sound design in my work and today it’s a mix of everything.

A major reason for the Cultural History Museum’s becoming a very exciting workplace for composers and sound designers, is a paradigm shift in the way they make exhibitions. It is a change that is becoming more widespread and forms the basis for a far more experience-based form of communication that embraces all generations.

In short, museums have gone from the “naked” showcasing of an infinite number of objects, to designed stagings- often with a strong, dramatic grasp. The exhibitions have become tales about man. The museums have humanized our common cultural history, and it provides a sense of belonging and recognition.

Museums have gone from the “naked” showcasing of an infinite number of objects, to designed stagings – often with a strong, dramatic grasp

The audience has embraced this to such an extent that the number of visitors to Cultural History Museums in Denmark in recent years has increased by over 50%.

There is a tremendous strength in that one can see and almost touch the authentic objects. While the audience, through the staging, dramatization and interaction itself becomes part of the story.

New museums are being built, which are spectacular buildings themselves. Dusty exhibition spaces in existing museums are redesigned as high-tech multimedia spaces that take shape and color for current content. An important element is that the experience spreads out in the space itself, often consecutive spaces with an overall design that is extremely exhibition-specific.

The individual elements are not necessarily revolutionary, but the challenging mix of techniques and expressions of architecture, film, theater and the arts, along with the latest technological possibilities. This combined with the Museums’ skills and conscious choice of objects can make a visit to a cultural history museum an unique experience. Interestingly, this makes the remaining, carefully selected objects “shine” more than before.
 

The sound of the modern museum

A modern museum, like Moesgaard, strikes a balance between providing entertainment and finding equilibrium, between racket and contemplation.

This also applies to the sound design one can experience. If I would point to trends I would be pointing in virtually all directions. There are all kinds of sound design; Regular Sound Design, Music, Soundtracks, Sound Installations, Foley Sound, Speak, Interactive Audio, Adaptive Sound, Space-creating Sound. Often there is a mixture of everything, from the very specific to the very abstract; from small projects – a screen showing a documentary with speak, seasoned with a little music, to large, complex setups that recreate historical battles – or a day in the Colosseum!

Often there is a mixture of everything, from the very specific to the very abstract

The main trend is that there is a lot of sound, and probably more sound than awareness of sound. But it is still in its infancy and there is a great potential in meeting the challenges specific exhibition design offers.

The question is of course, whether the museums are going to cut corners in an attempt to maintain success, and with this focus come to place sound design, and especially music, in the role of icing on the cake. Or will breathing space be made for one to develop new and original music and sound design, that is not only technologically exciting, but also artistically challenging.

While the answer is blowing in the wind, I try, through my work, to make sound and music available to the general expression. For me it’s about interaction and integration, to get my sound design to blend in seamlessly with the exhibition. A bit glibly, it can be said that good sound design should not create experience, but empathy.

About Moesgaard Museum

Sound at the Moesgaard MuseumMoesgaard Museum is a Danish regional museum dedicated to archaeology and ethnography.

The museum’s exhibitions presents several unrivalled archaeological findings from Denmark’s ancient past, amongst others the Grauballe Man, the world’s best preserved bog body and the large ritual weapon caches from Illerup Ådal, testifying the power struggles and warfare of the Iron Age.

It has also housed special exhibitions like “Gladiator – The Heroes of Colosseum” and “The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army”. Source: Wikipedia

 

My Workflow

I try, as early as possible, to get into the process of the development of the exhibition. I always try to get the role of senior sound designer in order to control all audible sound.

In advance, I thoroughly research the exhibition’s content and design, studies of the historical period, society, nature, culture, daily life, respectively. I am very focused on the role of music; politically, religiously, socially. I study styles, instruments and all sorts of other sound emitting sources, related to the period.

Based on my research, I make a presentation to the museum which, as detailed as possible, describes what I will do and how it should be included in the exhibition, function, and vision-wise, including technical proposals. This presentation concludes with a plan attached to my contract and serves as common reference. Adjustments can happen along the way, but I usually follow the plan fairly closely.

In this phase I work a bit like a music archaeologist and am often in close contact with specialists in the field

Both the music and sound design are strongly rooted in the authentic. I collect authentic sources or information concerning the same. I often work with historical periods where there is no original material to listen to. In this phase I work a bit like a music archaeologist and am often in close contact with specialists in the field. Authenticity is tricky business, and it can easily end up in academic discussions or detached ideas. You were not there, right? It will always be an interpretation.

I sample any sound emitting objects in the exhibition. If it is not possible, I find replicas of instruments and objects or use sample-based virtual instruments. I use a lot of sound libraries and am a regular customer at A Sound Effect! But even with this huge supply on hand, I have repeatedly fallen short. For example, in a recent exhibition I needed an audience of varying size and sex shouting in Latin! – Argh! … But I was saved by Roberto from Sound Of Italy, who made a collection of sounds for me. Gratias ago Roberto!

The production phase is divided into milestones, so there is continuous approval of that which is produced. Early in the production phase I test my sketches in the exhibition space and in the final phase I mix all music and sound in the exhibition space.

 

Finding the structure

I always compose with an overall structure in mind and quite literally compose all audio into one big composition. It helps to create a space that supports and brings together the exhibition and avoids a collision of sound. Quite literally, it enables the audience to wander around in the sound space, as you wander around in the exhibition space.

I compose everything in the same tempo and time signature. Everything runs in sync, in loops of the same length. I work from the same key, sometimes I work with the same key sequence. There is often a lot of sound and music, but it’s discreet and supportive. It is rare that the audience only observes my work, often they don’t really notice it at all.

I compose myself out of the problem which already plagues the museum world – clashes of sound

It is an important point for me that, by using this method, I compose myself out of the problem which already plagues the museum world – clashes of sound. Clashes are unsightly for the experience, drain our energy and are not conducive to the overall experience. And attempts to use isolation rarely fall lucky, neither from a practical nor artistic view.

A sound designer has a great responsibility because you work closely to both the general idea and the smallest detail. One must at the same time completely drop the idea of being an artist in his own right, while maintaining a highly professional integrity and the courage to stand by working with a subject that operates on both emotional, mental and spiritual levels.
 


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I have my own high end production studio and take care of all phases of production, from recording, programming and playing, to mixing and finished production. I have a full surround set up but rarely make traditional surround. The specific space is usually not configured for ensuring a traditional, optimal sound reproduction. On the contrary, exhibition space encourages unorthodox setups. Therefore, I am in constant dialogue with the rest of the production team, experimenting with setups and formats and adjustments – sometimes after the opening of the exhibition! Often it ends up with a mixture of a number of formats, often unorthodox use of standard configurations. Recently, I have worked a bit with ambisonic – a great format!

Despite the authentic starting point, the end result is not in the traditional “ascetic” sense authentic. It is an attempt to create new music – and sound design from a decoding of a periodic sound universe. Whether it creates a special, original sound design must be another commentary. My goal is not to make it innovative or spectacular – just natural. And you have to remember that the best sound is sometimes the sound of … silence.
 
 

Examples of my work:
“Lives of the Dead” – Permanent exhibition, Moesgaard Museum, opened in 2014:

The exhibition shows how the dead live on in different cultures, and how the relationship between the living and the dead is seen and experienced. The exhibition consists of a series of contiguous spaces with their own themes. Individual rooms have their own sound design but all the sound design is composed to be experienced as one composition you wander around inside. All sounds are carefully matched so that they relate to a parent key, all running in sync in loops of 12 min. Here are some examples from the exhibition:

“Intro space”

The sound / music consists 99% of processed samples of three small Balinese bells present in the exhibition. The sound runs in 6.0 surround with speakers hanging “face down” from the ceiling in a 2 x triangle formation. In addition there is a screen that displays a movie. The sound design is composed for (and in sync with) the movie and for the room at the same time. The film’s narration is monitored at the screen. It creates a compliance between film and space.

“Spirits space”

A continuation of “Intro space”, consists of a 6.1 surround setup, that locally executes specific design that relates both concretely and abstractly to specific objects. In this part, I managed to sample and subsequently process a flute made out of a human bone, which delivers the most incredible drone sound. It pops off in several locations in the overall exhibition. The local sound design all blends together in the room itself and creates an overall sound design illuminating the spirit’s life.

“Passages”

A sort of meeting place for the exhibition. The exhibition is in two floors, the “passages” are stretching from floor to ceiling, marked by two very tall totem poles. You board the room below and the sound design “bubbles” like being underwater or in the surface. In this room will can hear or sense the overall the sound design.

“Mexico”

A movie 3 min. long is projected onto a table. The movie “sets the table”. Included are small film sequences where one sees and hears Mexican women prepare a feast for their dead. I asked for a movie looped 4 times so we ended up with a 12 minutes long movie. In addition, I created a 12 min long piece of music that evolved continuously over the repeated movie. it breaks down the 3 min time barrier and somehow you lose track of time, just like when you die.

 
 

“The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army” – Special exhibition, Moesgaard Museum 2015

Moesgaard Museum’s first exhibition in the new exhibition building, was about China’s first Emperor and his Terracotta Army – a crucial epoch in the history of China.

The sound design was primarily music with elements of sound design integrated. The music was composed in three layers, which played in 3 sections of the exhibition, settled in 2 X stereo + mono. (+ subs). Each layer was both an independent work and part of the total work. Each section had its own musical identity.
The transitions between individual sections were going smoothly and more or less consciously with the audience wandering around inside the composition.

Furthermore the museum technician Johan Ahrenfeldt and I were in collaboration with the world-renowned company TC Electronic, experimenting with adaptive sound in “The Palace”, so the audience got the experience of walking around inside a giant palace.

As an additional and very popular part of the exhibition CAVI – “Centre for Advanced Visualization and Interaction”, made an interactive installation where the audience could color a terracotta figure. In this context I developed, in collaboration with Peter Friis from CAVI, a sound design that was tonally balanced with the other sound design and thereby silently slipped into the overall sound.
Due to public demand I released a stereo version of the music and, quite unusual for sound design for an exhibition, it was a minor sales success (and you can still buy it).

 
 

gladiator exhibition sound

“Gladiator – The Heroes of Colosseum” Special Exhibition, Moesgaard Museum 2016:

The exhibition is a journey into the gladiators’ life and into the Colosseum and Pompeii Arena.
All music and sound design runs in sync, in loops of 20 min. at the same rate and are tonally matched.
The exhibition consists of four main areas

Entrance

This works like a trip into the arena, where animals were kept before ingenious constructions lifted them up in the arena.

“Entrance” Sound design
Adaptive sound that captures the audience’s movements and speech, is reproduced in the room with the sound effect of a cellar built primarily of stone, again a collaboration with TC Electronic. Room Tone sound design supporting the adaptive sound A sound design built into the wall provides sounds of many of the animals used in the Arena. Boom Library helped me out here. Thanks!

Arena:

Moesgaard designed the room so the audience stands in the center of the arena. A movie is projected on a wall, size 26m x 7m.The movie follows a day in the colosseum, with processions, games, and a victory ceremony. The movie is a kind of tableau of a cross section of the arena and the space itself is the rest of the arena.

“Arena” Sound design
Foley sound for the film; fighting, shouts, steps, speak, fanfares, combined with the sound of a lion lying in a cage under the stage. Cage hoisted above the lower edge of the film, the lion jumps into the movie! The audience for the film is laid out in space in the rear (a kind of expanded 7.1) and the audience experiences both being a part of the film and being present all the way around the room.
The action part of the movie (ceremonies and battle scenes) runs in 10 min. and then turns to evening mode, then into night mode. Here there is minimal action in the film itself. Instead the exhibition space is filled with a mix of music and sound design. After 6 min the movie turns into morning and then shows a preliminary meeting between some of the key gladiators. This changes to music from environment sound to soundtrack. It maintains the feeling of being present in the movie itself and creates an interesting connection between something circular and somewhat more linear and binds space and film together.

“Museological” and “Architectural Space”

In “Museological” where most objects in the exhibition are exhibited, you focus on daily life and life behind the scenes. In the “Architectural Space” you focus on architecture, shown with models and digitizations. The two spaces shared the same sound design.

“Museological” and “Architectural Space” Sound design
While Arena is in evening, night and morning mode, a parallel layer of
music/sound design built from the Arena music/sound design is running. It binds the three spaces together but retains each compartment identity. When the fighting starts in the Arena the sound design in “Museological” / “Architecture space” changes into a sound design, now focusing on birds, nature sounds and sounds from everyday life. It helps to relieve the pressure from the sound of an audience of 50,000 people screaming and shouting, the sound of clashing swords and death rattle coming from “Arena”.

The biggest challenge was to create a credible experience of 50,000 audience members because the film was a tableau, and was not driven by dialogue clips, commentary, a Hans Zimmer soundtrack and the presence of Russell Crowe. So the sound of the audience played a huge role in that dynamic voltage-generating clue. It was incredibly challenging to avoid sound that was constant and massive.
The audience sound consisted of approximately 100 tracks of audiences of different sizes, different genders and there was a myriad of groups, from individual people to groups of 2 to 10 people located around the room / sound stage with multiple layers of the large audience. Under it all are 3 layers of ambience of audience. In all, it`s a mix of shouting, talk, clap, mumbling, snoring (!)

There are, of course, many folks out there who make sound design and go about it differently. One can usefully follow the organization MMEx. But otherwise visit the museums – Sound design must be experienced live.

A big thanks to Soren Bendixen for his insights on how museum sound is created!

 

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