Rant 61: Nightclub at the Museum

Rant 61: Nightclub at the Museum Ellie Harrison, Angel Row Jukebox, 2007

Should discos, dance floors and DJs be found in museums? In a desire to pull in the culturally elusive 'youth of today' have museums gone too far in their attempts to contextualise their collections with noisy contemporary culture? Lizzie Walley investigates the new phenomenon of music in the museum.

Today the art gallery is ablaze in sensory stimuli. Gone is the absolute reverence of the visual, and in the name of innovation, seemingly anything goes.

The last decade’s drive to increase access and diversify museum audiences has resulted in a search for originality in order to lure non-gallery goers through their doors.

In our contemporary society we are inflicted with more noise than ever before. Whether we have an appetite for it or merely a high tolerance of it, we have come to expect a constant aural accompaniment.

Attuned to the commercial world, museums have followed the hoards of adverts, films and retail outlets which use music to sell an experience or emphasise a message. Many exhibitions now employ music; be it as portable audio devices, background music, live performance or DJ sets.

For example, visitors to Tate Liverpool’s current DLA Piper Series: This is Sculpture are plunged into a 1970s disco, accompanied by mirror balls, flashing dance floor, neon lighting, oh, and a selection of figurative sculpture plucked from the permanent collection.

So how do we gauge the success of bringing music into the art gallery? Certainly captivating that elusive and under-represented target audience termed ‘young adults’ is a big tick in the right box. But is enticing new audiences into the gallery space enough?

At the risk of being labelled antiquated, I am of that breed of museum professional who still believes that collections are key, and that without engagement with these at any level, the experience is incomplete.

At its best music can be a catalyst, a context or the trigger to a memory, which enhances our connection with an object or theme: for me this is the crux of music’s validity in the gallery. 

Enticing varied and new audiences is admirable, but to spark interest in the gallery’s message or its collections is truly an achievement.

It's an interesting challenge for museums: how can they be 'down with the kids' whilst staying true to their collections?

May 2011

Contributed by Lizzie Walley

Lizzie Walley is a freelance writer and curator based in Manchester. 

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