Click here for the PMO frontpages! Click here for the PMO frontpages!

Music in the Museum:

Some Problems in Collecting & Interpreting the Technologies of Pop

Kevin Edge

In their 1993 HMSO review of musical instrument collections in the United Kingdom, Kate Arnold-Forster and Hélèn La Rue state that: ' museum in this country collects electronic instruments systematically, particularly mass-produced instruments such as Hammond organs or electric guitars', they add: 'although music is probably the most thriving and universally enjoyed of the live arts, our museums have almost entirely failed to make efforts to collect or record evidence of its twentieth century manifestations.'[1] This is still seems to be the case in 1998. Why is this? Is this state of affairs a significant problem for musicologists and students of popular culture? What are we to make of instances where pop and its technologies have occasionally crossed the Museum threshold?[2]

Although this article considers a number of named collections old and new, the intention here is not to offer a negative critique of curatorial policies in any one institution but instead to address, in a more general manner, the curatorial rationales surrounding the presence - or more usually the absence - of pop and its technologies in the museum. It might be that the absence of a systematic collecting and interpretation of pop music can be understood - at least in the case of 'traditional' museums - when seen in the light of two sets of factors: both of them essentially museological in character. The first set of factors are curatorial considerations of a practical nature; the second set comprises those which are ideologically motivated. Following a charting of these factors, other developments and considerations in the collecting and interpretation of pop music which appear to go some way to circumvent the resistances present in traditional museums will be surveyed briefly.

I began to note the relative absence of pop music's material and cultural dimensions from public collections whilst working as a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London in the late 1980s and early '90s. There, in the V&Amp;A's galleries and stores I encountered mute musical hardware of various eras ranging from Queen Elizabeth I's virginals (actually a spinet) to one of Pete Townshend's broken electric guitars in an archive cupboard. However, post-war pop instrumentation as a whole was under-represented; both in the main collections and in the Rock & Pop Archive of the V&Amp;A's Theatre Museum.[3]

Most of the V&Amp;A's musical instruments are retired, historical examples collected and displayed unproblematically in 'the largest museum of the decorative arts in the world'.[4] These artefacts of Western Art Music are there to be gazed at; these silent, encased, spot-lit instruments (rightly) focus on the art and craft of the musical instrument maker. What is privileged is their visual beauty, intrinsic value and celebrity provenance. Information about their musical capabilities and performative contexts has to be inferred from the visual evidence alone. A number of contemporary instruments such as electric guitars, radios, record players and Walkmans - instruments that produce, amplify and broadcast popular music - have been acquired by the V&Amp;A over the years (though not necessarily systematically) and are also to be seen entering other collections, most notably the Horniman Museum's Music Room in Forest Hill, South London. [5]Those in the former are still silent and decontextualised, those in the latter are given some musical support by way of audio samples and headphones.

Yet for me: a former curator, amateur musician and now lecturer, there is something unsettling about the collection and interpretation of pop technologies in traditional museums, even when an audio dimension is included as at The Horniman. All musical instruments upon entering a museum are effectively silenced and decontextualised. Instruments, especially mass-produced ones become 'old gear' wrapped in tissue or exposed in a glass case. Even the tactile pleasures of fretboard, pitch-wheel or filter control knob are denied to most visitors. Any typological or individual history they may have is given short shrift on brief labels. The musical text is lost; the context of performer, performing space and audience obscured or lost.

Music's inherent musicological meanings and its external sociological significance reside in its text and context respectively.[6] This is particularly important for pop music where new sonorities, textures and oppositional social settings are often its only distinguishing aspects. Perhaps some curators rightly perceive pop in many ways being a twentieth-century story of audio recordings, broadcasting and reproduction and have not attempted to collect the cheap musical instruments of its production systematically or in great number. This reading of pop as an art of reproduction is to some extent supported by the holdings of the EMI archive and by the record archives of the British Library's National Sound Archive which contribute significantly to the story of pop.

It could be argued in the case of the V&Amp;A Museum's ambivalent attitude to pop that there is perhaps something almost tokenistic if not patronising about the presence of mass-produced technologies divorced from their sounds, their performative facets and original audience in such a conventional institution.[7] Of course what any 'traditional' museum (Western decorative or ethnomusicological) as an institution does with any object is to remove it from its original context and tear it from its web of wider meanings. Museums are repositories for exemplary and typical objects that are placed in conventionalised, didactic settings.

Douglas Crimp's essay 'On the Museum's Ruins' begins with a quotation from Adorno: 'the German word museal (museum like) has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present...'.[8] There are of course lively exceptions such as some science and transport museums and more importantly Fenton House North London and the Brentford Musical Museum where historic instruments can be played and heard.

Museums are so often state or local authority funded institutions perpetuating nineteenth century museological conventions and social ideologies of improvement and instruction which operate in a way oblivious to pop music's shifting, diverse discourses and its industrialised material culture. Of course if adopted by a museum, contemporary technologies of pop could be framed so as to tell stories about design and manufacture. They might also be used to hit a nostalgic nerve or ignite the performative motor memory and imagination of players, yet in these changed and charged scholarly times in which we study, where questions of context and consumption jostle with those older questions about design and making, might interpretations be somewhat broader, more thoroughgoing and vital?

Stripped-out musical text and social context can of course be reinserted or represented with audio and video. The ambitious audio system at the Horniman Museum's Music Room has headphones that let us hear Phil Collins perform 'If Leaving me is Easy' on a Fender Rhodes while we gaze at a silent one in a glass case (is it the same instrument?). At this instant, one is aware of a certain kind of disembodiment as one listens and stares. Here it is the unsettling space between someone heard and something seen, not the use of a musical extract per se that is uncomfortable.[9] To paraphrase graphic designer Neville Brody discussing design problems: in offering a solution ( in this instance reuniting technology with it musical text) we so often simply draw attention to the fundamental problem we sought to solve - here the absence of the performer.[10]

It is now necessary to outline the first set of museological factors (chiefly practical ) which may account for the absence of pop in many museums. Not just pop music but sound itself is a temporal, immaterial and subversive phenomenon that rarely permeates the spaces of the orthodox museum unregulated, why? There are the very real problems of sound 'leaking' and thereby distracting and misleading visitors. Another legitimate concern is that of the technical reliability of reproductive audio equipment in the gallery. Technology in permanent galleries might be expected to run trouble free for at least 5-10 years. This, experience tells us, is rarely so. One seemingly reliable solution has been heard at the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum where radio transmissions of pipes are relayed to personal headphones. How durable is a system such as this? Curators have to budget for equipment replacements or upgrades long term when often funding only exists at the point of installation. Another financial factor is that of musical reproduction rights as regulated by the MCPS and the PRS which can temper any plans for generous playback in galleries.

A further curatorial objection is that instruments are musical tools too old to be played or handled; they are in retirement. True, tuning old, lightly constructed instruments is risky. However the provision of handling collections and reproductions can be effective at least in demonstrating acoustic principles. In their HMSO report, Kate Arnold-Forster and Hélèn La Rue comment on the lack of specialist staff versed in musical instrument care yet increasingly, any conscientious curator or conservator today given the rigours of their professions should be able to deal with those matters of preservation which are largely to do with stable environments and inevitable material decay common to any kind of collection. The costs of setting-up pop collections might be financially restrictive but one approach is to borrow 'star' instruments. Dave Gilmore's 1954 sunburst Fender Stratocaster is on long term loan to the V&Amp;A's Twentieth Century Gallery. Another might see museums persuading multinational manufacturers of instruments to lend or donate examples.

Turning to ideological factors that militate against music in the museum, it is perhaps necessary to define the term ideology itself. John Hartley offers the following: 'knowledges and representations characteristic of, or in the interests of a class' but also he argues a group may also be defined by profession, not just class, and offers the term: 'occupational ideology'. Hartley cites Marx: 'The individuals composing the ruling class ... rule as ... thinkers, producers of ideology and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age'.[11] In this survey of music in the museum, a professional, curatorial discourse can be identified: an occupational sensibility that privileges an impartial caring of instruments but which is, at the same time a discourse shot through with an 'occupational ideology' that may be regarded as being opposed to sound, noise and those people and the things which generate them. Many traditional museums are about looking; ours is an ocular-centric society. Peter Bailey writes that 'from the mid-century, the modern consumer was constructed and enthralled by spectacle and display in the new optics of the exhibition and the department store ... seeing and being seen'.[12] Even the contemporary music shop tends to be a place where we are encouraged to look and imagine as much as to play and hear. John Shepherd and Peter Wicke assert that 'vision is selective ... a gaze can be controlled more easily than can hearing, and in this sense, the world of vision becomes more safe and permanent than the world of sound'.[13] Didactic museum displays demand an absence of distracting sound so that a dominant, preferred perspective may be more clearly apprehended. What is it about sounds which makes them ideologically unwelcome in the museum? Is it a transient, invisible often vulgar phenomenon which has a ubiquitous potency?

Like a library, the museum is regarded as a site for quiet contemplation. Sound or more particularly 'noise' (Bailey tells us 'noise' comes from the Latin 'nausea' - a confusing seasickness) disrupts scholarly concentration. Noise, suggests Bailey, is also 'embarrassment ... merriment ... terror ... [however] Silence ... is the sound of authority - generational, patriarchal and formidably inscribed in the regimes of church and state. As reverence ... it was the necessary tribute to the Christian god, institutionalised in ... monastic orders as the condition of piety and learning.'[14] As Frith says: '... music is now the everyday ... silence becomes the mark of the special moment'.[15] The importance of quiet space is referred to by Frances Palmer, Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman who states in the Gallery Guide that: 'the design of the music room takes account of the need for quiet concentration ... the floor is carpeted and the sound examples are available through headphones so it should be possible to study in peace.'[16] Pop's pulse often demands a physical, toe-tapping, sociable response; a pulse which is often thought to excite or connote the presence of libidinal energies that reflect and shape mainstream and oppositional social formations. As we contemplate and reflect on music and its production, we become less spontaneous and more civilised. Is this dichotomy of mind and body fostered in the museum (a quiet, bourgeois space), with thought being privileged over action, impulse and associated pleasures?

Traditional musical instruments are collected for their resonance, strength and beauty: collecting criteria reflecting nineteenth- and twentieth-century musicological focus on Western Art Music. In the case of pop instruments there is, in comparison, an apparent lack of crafting pleasure at the production stage and an presumed lack of orthodox musical skills (such as dexterity and sight-reading) at the playing stage. Furthermore it is assumed perhaps that at this playing stage, the boundary established between trained performer and untrained listener can now be crossed with little more than preset button pushing and computer software packages facilitating instant music-making of an indeterminate quality and status. Mass-produced items do pose challenges to museums of exemplary design like the V&Amp;A Museum: would people pay good money to stare at jug kettles and cheap electric guitars however important they are though to be? They are certainly not pinnacles of human artistic achievement per se.

When viewed in a museum or archive, most of the technologies of pop - particularly those of the 'blackbox' variety - are not self-justifying musical 'tools' even when seen alongside traditional percussion as is the case in the Horniman. These mass-produced boxes posses no outward physical form to represent their essential acoustic properties; they become parts abstracted from a larger and more readily apprehended 'system'. Pop music's meaning and value are not inscribed in boxed microchips or even in its drums and wires but in its sounds, performance and reception. Where might we look in the hope of seeing (or hearing) ideological constraints challenged or circumvented? One such place could be the National Centre for Popular Music being built in Sheffield's culture industry quarter and run by Music Heritage Ltd., a charity. The centre is to be for interactive arts and for education, and is scheduled to open in 1998. This is not a 'museum' at all. There will be relatively few instruments and no large displays of memorabilia, but a space representing popular musics and their social contexts using digital technologies. Another kind of collection where the timbres of pop are being preserved and revitalised is the Turnkey facility in London: in effect a sonic 'museum' of analogue synthesiser sounds for musicians where keyboards are custom mounted and computer controlled, allowing clients to sample chosen sounds on to CD, DAT and mini-disc. This kind of facility may soon be joined by Internet sites offering analogue samples online.[17]

What issues are raised by the prospect of systematic UK collections, traditional or new emerging to collect the technologies of pop? Should such places of classification and collection seek to chart the visceral and musicological and if so how? Should displays be noisy and impressionistic or silent and scholarly? Should they map anthropological activity or urban resistance? When we see and sometimes hear pop within the ambit of 'the establishment' as it is broadly understood, are we witnessing core 'appropriation' of peripheral popular ritual which simply neuters social communication and commodifies youthful resistance and creativity? The challenge of collecting and representing should be met in both traditional spaces and new ventures, spurred on by academics, musicians and an interested public. If one considers the classical definition of 'museum': a library or study deemed to be the home of nine sister muses inspiring the arts and learning, how many collections today are such inspirational places for contemporary music lovers, musicians or instrument makers?

Conditions for changes in 'occupational ideology' are present today. Because of pressures in the 1980s, museums have become confluences of commerce, creative endeavour and leisured activity. Museums are also now regarded as legitimate and fundamental resources for students and academics. At the same moment museums are recasting themselves as centres of relaxation, providing food and even live music. Simon Frith argues that young musicians are frustrated intellectuals seeking an entrée into culture in the widest sense.[18] Should museums perhaps help bring that about by being more responsive to pop, its history and its practitioners? (It is important to remember that the British State has historically shadowed and cultivated the development of pop through the BBC and art school environment.)

To conclude this survey of pop music's status in the museum, it is worth turning to the observations of Jacques Attali: 'For 25 centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for the hearing. Our science has always desired to monitor, measure, abstract and castrate meaning, forgetting that life is full of noise and that death alone is silent ... nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.'[19] Attali's thesis is that music, unlike other art forms is prophetic, a sensitive precursor of radical social change. Quite apart from curatorial factors, is it this quality in music which explains why it does not have a more central role in many of our museums where ruling ideologies and a natural concern for the past together seem to silence contemporary voices?


[1] K. Arnold-Forster and H. La Rue, Museums of Music. A Review of Musical Collections in the UK, HMSO, 1993, pp. 11-12, 20.

[2] The collecting of contemporary technologies and the representation of musical cultures is presumably taking place to an extent at the Gemeente Museum, Holland which has a stated policy of acquiring examples of twentieth century developments in instrument making. Likewise the Musée des Arts et Traditions populaires in Paris seeks to represent folk and pop cultures. Are there extensive manufacturers' museums or private or collections? What is the precise rationale behind the Hardrock Café holdings of pop equipment? How extensive is the Smithsonian Institution's collection in Washington?

[3] It is interesting to note that in terms of pop technology, radios fare well numerically at the V&A perhaps because they could be most easily acquired and displayed as stylistically significant items of domestic furniture: an unproblematic category in such a museum.

[4] A former V&A epithet appearing on its promotional material.

[5] Frederick John Horniman gave his collection of natural history items and cultural artefacts from around the world to the people of London in 1901. Today it has about_6,000 musical instruments, many of which are displayed in its new, high-tech. Music Room. Exhibits include: a Rickenbacker guitar of c.1937 purchased with a grant from PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material); a Fender Rhodes Suitcase electric piano; a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser; an Alesis HR -16 drum machine and a Watkins Copycat II echo unit.

[6] See: J. Shepherd and P. Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997, p.8.

[7] See: S. Frith, 'The Cultural Study of Popular Music' in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P. Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies, Routledge, London, 1992, p.180, where a romantic, bourgeois fear and fascination of the Other is seen in the context of popular music's production and consumption.

[8] Cited in D. Crimp 'On the Museum's Ruins' in H. Foster (ed.) Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, London, 1985, p.43.

[9] Frith has suggested listening patterns today are ones of individualised grazing from preselected extract to extract, incomplete but meaningful hearings from a wide range of sources. S. Frith, Performing Rites. On the Meanings of Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 237, 242.

[10] Neville Brody in J. Wozencroft The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, Thames and Hudson, 1988, p.10.

[11] J. Hartley in T. O'Sullivan et al (eds.) Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 1994, pp. 139-141.

[12] P. Bailey,' Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Historian Listens to Noise' in Body and Society, vol. 2 (2) 1996, p. 59. This is an admirable account of the cultural and social significance of noise.

[13] J. Shepherd and P. Wicke op. cit. pp. 126-7.

[14] P. Bailey ibid. p.53.

[15] Frith op. cit. (1996), p.237.

[16] The Music Room Gallery Guide, The Horniman Museum and Public Park Trust ISBN 0 951814133.

[17] The Big Byte, Radio 5, Sunday 22nd March, 1998.

[18] See Frith op. cit. (1992,) pp. 177, 179.

[19] J. Attali, Noise. The Political Economy of Music, Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 2 and cited in T. Swiss, J. Sloop and A. Herman, (eds.) Mapping the Beat. Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, Blackwell, Oxford, 1998 p.16.