Presented by the Anchorage Museum
Of the five human senses, the one you probably expect to use at a museum is sight. From history to science to art, contemporary sculpture to ancient artifacts, a trip to a museum is often a primarily visual experience.
So when the Anchorage Museum set out to explore the sounds of the circumpolar north, the curators knew they were going to have to think very differently about how patrons would experience an exhibition that has no visual components.
“Listen Up: Northern Soundscapes,” currently on view at the Anchorage Museum, relies entirely on sound and music to explore creative life in the north -- and bringing it to life meant thinking outside the box.
What is a soundscape?
In 2017, the museum deployed five audio recorders to spots across the state, one each in Anchorage, Nenana, Nuiqsuit, Sitka and Soldotna. All day, every day since then, these devices have recorded the sounds around them, collecting “soundscapes” from each place.
If a landscape is a wide view of a place -- its layout, shapes, colors and features -- a soundscape is the same idea, except that the “picture” is auditory, not visual. A soundscape is a collection of sounds heard in a specific place -- the ambient noise that you might (or might not) notice while standing in that spot. The soundscape for the museum’s Anchorage recorder, for example, tells the story of its location along a trail near the South Anchorage High School playing fields, punctuated by the sounds of dogs, ravens, quiet recreation and distant vehicle traffic.
The recordings in the museum’s database are being collected as part of an effort in soundscape ecology, which is used by scientists to understand what’s happening in an environment in ways that may not be visually observed. Each of the recording sites is maintained in partnership with a public school where students have the opportunity to explore questions about their environment through the soundscapes they collect.
“It’s terabytes and terabytes of data,” said Hollis Mickey, chief learning and access officer at the Anchorage Museum. “If you want to hear 24 hours of May 21, 2019, we’ve got that for you. We also thought it would be really exciting to invite artists to engage with it.”
That was the genesis of “Listen Up,” which opened in April. Mickey approached 10 different artists to create works responding to selections from the museum’s soundscape collection. The curators selected a one-minute clip from each location, all of them recorded at 9 a.m., and invited two artists to respond to each clip -- with no rules or guidelines. The responding artists represent a cross section of names from across the circumpolar north. Some are familiar to Alaskans (tribal funk group Pamyua, for example) while others are better known in places like Russia or Scandinavia. Others have global ties, like Alex Somers, an American who collaborates with his partner Jónsi, lead vocalist from the Icelandic music group Sigur Rós.
“I really did want to have artists who have different perspectives,” Mickey said. “To show the range of interpretation of these sounds that can happen was really exciting.”
The resulting works run the gamut from freeform audio art to electronic music and beyond. Some artists sampled the recordings, but it wasn’t a requirement.
“It’s everything from throat singing to hip hop to really expansive classical compositions to more acoustic guitar,” Mickey said. “It’s a really diverse range of responses.”
An exhibit you have to hear
With the soundscapes assembled, Mickey moved on to the next question: How do we entice patrons to visit an exhibition that’s nothing like anything we’ve done before?
“What’s really helpful to understand about this exhibit is that it’s about a really different kind of sensory experience than one typically has in a museum,” Mickey said. “This is an exhibit that invites you to listen.”
For a different kind of art, the museum staff needed to figure out a different kind of gallery experience. Visitors to “Listen Up” are greeted by suspended, luminous listening cubes, each featuring a different soundscape and set of artistic responses.
“You can go into each station and hear the original clip, and then you can also hear each artist’s responses,” Mickey said. “It’s really immersive.”
Outside the listening stations, the gallery space has been designed to put all the focus on sound.
“If you’ve been to a museum before, you look and you don’t touch, and the sense that you’re using, primarily, is sight,” Mickey said. “One of the things about this work was to try and set that scenario up so that you were cued to listen. We really stripped the visuals away from the show so that you aren’t distracted by lots of photographs or visual data.” Instead of gazing at visuals, visitors can listen in on a live audio feed of the museum’s Art of the North gallery -- a living soundscape within the collection of soundscapes.
“Sound is a way of expressing our relationship to a place but also learning about a place,” Mickey said. While experiencing the exhibition, visitors can also observe the way others experience the museum through their soundscape.
But designing the gallery itself was only part of the process. A visitor’s day at the museum begins well before they step into the fourth-floor space where “Listen Up” is housed, and curators knew they needed to take that into consideration.
“One of the things that one has to do is to consider that kind of user experience,” Mickey said. “How do people know to listen rather than look?”
To help set the stage, the listening experience begins even before visitors reach the gallery. Outside the museum’s front doors, music from around the circumpolar north plays on outdoor speakers. On the stairway to the fourth floor, a speaker plays a piece by Alaska contemporary classical composer John Luther Adams. Inside the auditorium, a collection of films related to sound plays throughout the day. And in the main lobby, the air echoes with recordings of Yup’ik grass rattles from the museum’s collection of Alaska Native artifacts -- items that are usually seen but not heard.
“These objects have sound, these things that I normally look at and think of as silent,” Mickey said. “They have a voice, and I can hear it.”
More sound on the horizon
Mickey said she anticipates that “Listen Up” will be just the beginning of imagining how sound can be part of the Anchorage Museum’s exploration of life, history and culture in Alaska. In addition to its soundscape ecology project, the museum has a vinyl record label, and recordings by the artists featured in “Listen Up” are available in the Anchorage Museum Store.
“The museum has an investment in sound,” Mickey said. “Thinking about sound as having an important place in museums and in our cultural understanding of who we are here in Alaska and across the circumpolar north is a really exciting part of this show.”
Exciting and, if visitors’ reactions are any indication, thought-provoking. You might think that an exhibit centered around sound would be noisy -- but the mood in the gallery has been even more contemplative than some other parts of the museum, according to Mickey.
“It doesn’t feel like people feel the need to pull their phone out,” she said. “There’s not a lot of scrolling. It is a quiet place, and it invites you to be in that more sort of meditative and attentive space. That’s been affirming.”
In some ways, she added, now is an ideal time for museum visitors to have the opportunity to spend quiet, focused time indulging their sense of hearing and thinking about how soundscapes define and inspire us.
“We’ve all been through a lot in this past year-plus, and perhaps the invitation to just come and listen and be quiet is something that could be meaningful and calming,” Mickey said. “This is a great way to have a really immersive, intimate experience in sound.”
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.