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A workshop on sound in science center planning and design

Friday, October 5, 2001
Phoenix, Arizona

In our highly visual society, museum design is often thought of in terms of architecture, exhibit furniture and devices, lighting, labels, and signs. Sound gets less attention, and often as a negative factor, after installation is complete. This workshop was designed to heighten awareness of the museum soundscape—from ambient sound (and noise) to sound as an element of multisensory exhibit experiences. The goal was to increase our understanding of the potential of sound in creating environments and experiences that give pleasure and enhance learning, for a wide variety of people. Thirty-five people participated.

Participants introduced themselves by sharing their favorite sounds. The sounds that were named, often with much warmth and nostalgia, mirrored the preferences identified in surveys carried out in four distinct cultures. Everywhere, the sounds rated most highly were of water, wind, birds, specific musical instruments and vocal music, and laughter. (For more, see The Soundscape, by Murray Shafer.)

Getting started
Kathleen McLean, Director of Public Programs & Center for Public Exhibition at The Exploratorium, San Francisco

Kathleen kicked off the workshop by sharing an audiotape of the sound environment at her museum, made three years earlier. As part of an effort to improve the visitor experience, The Exploratorium brought in Robert Fry to be part of the Sound and Hearing Group.

Case study of The Exploratorium
Robert Fry, The Exploratorium

Robert identified common challenges, and talked about ways these are being addressed at The Exploratorium, including: (1) focusing sound that needs to happen; (2) addressing sounds that shouldn't be there through baffling, damping of motors, labyrinth air channels, and other techniques; and (3) considering building acoustics and adjacencies (including adjustments in programming).

Orientation and wayfinding
Ellen Rubin, Access Consultant, New York

Ellen shared personal and professional reflections on sound as an aspect of orientation and wayfinding. She showed videotapes of an excerpt from the film Stand and Deliver—one without audio description, and one with—to illustrate how dramatically even a simple modification can enhance an audiovisual experience for people who are blind. She also described devices she is helping to develop that will aid in wayfinding within museums using wireless telephones and beacons.

Sound design for museums
Maribeth Back, Xerox PARC

Maribeth builds prototypes in new genres that incorporate several sensory modes. Among them are the Listen Reader and other exhibits in XFR: Experiments in the Future of Reading, a traveling exhibition that was on display at the Arizona Science Center at the time of the conference. Maribeth is interested in how people understand sound and other dynamic processes, and how good design can take advantage of this understanding. She shared perspectives on sound design in museums.
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Working on exhibits
Tom Nielsen, Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose
J. Shipley Newlin, Science Museum of Minnesota
Betty Davidson, Museum of Science, Boston

Tom, J., and Betty opened the afternoon's work by sharing their perspectives on aspects of sound in their own exhibit work. The group walked to the Arizona Science Center to listen to exhibits, and to the overall sound environment in the building. Four groups then discussed different aspects of sound—both sound as a "positive" element of exhibit design, and noise and strategies for limiting it.

The workshop was coordinated by Wendy Pollock of ASTC and sponsored by Folio Museums & Environments and Jeff Kennedy Associates, with additional support from the National Science Foundation.

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