Museum as Symphony: Listening to Natural History

Typically when we head to great museum, the experience is primarily visual. We marvel at the building itself which usually makes its own bold architectural statement. We crane our necks to look up at the grand entrance galleries, then we spend our visit looking at the paintings, or sculptures or displays. We squint at explanatory plaques or museum brochures, and jockey for position to get the best sight lines.

In honor of the great composers and deep listener, Pauline Oliveros, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, I propose an alternative approach for your next museum visit: museum as symphony, museum as sound sculpture, museum as sonic meditation.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of visiting The American Museum of Natural History in New York with my partner in musical adventure, Leila Ramagopal. Just the thought of the visit turned us back into giddy school children anticipating the big field trip to the magical treasure trove of dinosaur bones, epic dioramas, and endless cases of arrowheads, and meteorites. It didn’t matter that neither of us grew up in New York, nor had even visited this particular icon as children, apart from tagging along with Eloise in the pages of a children’s book. This museum, with its grand halls, dark oak cases, and stately bronze plaques, is an archetype for all of our collective natural history museum dreams.

On this day, however, we weren’t there just to gape at the towering dinosaur display in the grand lobby, nor were we there just to browse the labyrinth of exhibits. We were there to listen to this museum in all of its musical glory! So we made our way into the gallery of African animals, a perfect example of a 19th century exhibit hall—tile floors, dark oak cases framing exquisitely displayed cheetahs, hyenas, and lions. An upper gallery created a soaring ceiling and ample space for a herd of elephants to march proudly down the center of the room on a long oak dais completely encircled by built-in benches.

We made our way to the center of pachyderm parade, sat on the cool bench, closed our eyes and experienced the museum in a spectacular new way. To actually focus on an aspect of a public space that we typically try to ignore or actively filter out, can be nothing short of revelation.

As soon as our eyes closed, the music of the museum, the music of that gallery, the music of hundreds of visitors, filled us with an overwhelming sense of awe and beauty. We couldn’t help but grin at the thought that something as simple as closing our eyes and opening our ears could magically reveal hidden sound worlds that have existed in that space since the its doors opened in 1877!

We were immersed in a river of ever-changing music. Voices swirled, footsteps boomed, the excited cry of a child provided a vibrant splash over the energized vocal tapestry that provided the core of the musical flow. In that magical space, even though visitors were passing within feet of our bench, we couldn’t discern one distinct word or phrase. Excited whispers, cell phone conversations, and parental explanations of cheetah behavior were all converted directly into a symphonic stream of music, weaving, blending, tumbling, splashing around us.

It was glorious, immersive, and utterly wonderful. And this was just one room in that monumental museum. Each space, depending on its configuration and popularity, provided a different movement in the great American Museum of Natural History Symphony. If she could have sit still long enough, I think Eloise would have really dug it. I know that this adventure in deep listening will forever change how I experience museums, train stations, even parking garages. I encourage you to try it too. You will be glad you did.

So the next time we meet, you can say, “did you HEAR that incredible museum?!” And I will eagerly listen to tales of your own listening adventures.

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