Nottingham Sensory Studies Network

This AHRC funded project will develop expertise on curating with sound and sound technology in order to advise and support, as well as to inspire, practitioners within the Science Museum and beyond when devising exhibitions of acoustic technology as part of their on-going curatorial practice.

The project offers a timely opportunity to think historically in relation to exhibiting the Museum’s rich collection of acoustic technology for future audiences.

Today, much of the acoustics collection resides in storage, in silence and out of public view. The key aim of the project is to establish strategies for how these hidden collections can be brought back into exhibition circulation in innovative sonic ways.  

Image copyright: T.H. Court / Science Museum Group. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.


Acoustics on Display: Collecting and Curating Sound at the Science Museum

This project will investigate new ways of bridging university research and museum exhibition development.

Project overview

The project will cement Nottingham’s position as a key partner to the Science Museum in developing fresh approaches to research and exhibitions.

The project will engage in detailed archival research at the Science Museum in order to critically examine the development and evolution of the acoustics collection. Archival materials will be analysed to expose the motivations underpinning the process and practices of acquisition and exhibition. Particular attention will be paid to the biographies of those Science Museum staff responsible for the acoustics collection, its classification and representation. One figure to which the project will pay particularly close attention is curator of the Acoustics and Talking Machines galleries from 1958 to 1978, Victor Chew who, soon after joining the Science Museum in 1958, set about devising new ways to make audible the Museum’s otherwise mute acoustic artefacts. Chew’s expertise in exhibiting sound and sound technology, and his practical understanding of the interplay between the visual and the auditory, offer potentially valuable resources for current and future curatorial practice at the Science Museum and beyond. For example, we might learn from Chew how to display a tuning fork, or a Moog synthesiser, in such a way as to make them both visually and aurally inspiring to audiences, allowing them to create new audible narratives in the museum-going experience. Learning these lessons at the Science Museum, a major national organisation responsible for operating three additional regional museums, has significant implications for how sound might be reintegrated into the museum more widely.   

Through a concentrated period of collection and archive research, the project will produce a significant body of knowledge on acoustical technology collection and display of interest to a wide range of end users, including curators and associated museum professionals at the Science Museum and at other national and regional museums as well as funders and policymakers involved in the museum and heritage sectors.

Specifically, the project will: 

  • Produce a survey of the acoustics collection in the stores of the Science Museum to identify objects and narratives for a future Science Museum exhibition
  • Produce new research on the history of the acoustics collection and its display in the Acoustics Gallery/Talking Machines Gallery as a way of unlocking curatorial and collecting histories
  • Develop ways of making these histories useful to museum professionals, particularly those at the Science Museum, as a way of supporting future curatorial work with sound, and making these findings available in a policy paper
  • Make this research available to a wider academic audience through the publication of an open-access journal article
  • Produce a new interactive webpage in order to share the findings of the project with the wider public as a way of building interest in acoustics
  • Engage museum professionals, academic researchers and other practitioners, as well as the public, in a dialogue about this research through a day action-research event hosted at the newly opened Dana Research Centre and Library at the Science Museum, which will also include a small exhibition showcasing artefacts from the Science Museum’s acoustics collection  
  • Finally, the project will provide invaluable experience to a recent doctoral graduate, offering hands-on experience in researching museum collections and museum practices as well as the opportunity to meet and collaborate with a wide variety of practitioners in the museum field.

Public engagement

The project will offer clear and tangible benefits to Science Museum by offering new research on the history of the collecting and curatorial practices relating to its acoustics collection. This research will be directly useful to the Museum in making new use of this collection for its planned future exhibition on sound.

The project will form part of a possible impact case study for REF2021 on the ways in which sound studies research at Nottingham has influenced practice at the Science Museum. This impact agenda has already been set in motion through the 2014-15 AHRC research network project on ‘Music, Noise and Silence’ awarded jointly to Mansell as Co-I.

  • A 2000-3000 word policy document for Science Museum staff with advice and ideas for exhibiting sound and sound technology
  • A website (or single animated webpage) which showcases, in illustrative and sonic form, the history of displaying acoustics at the Science Museum and which encapsulates the relationship(s) between the sonic and the visual
  • A one-day workshop on sound and display which will include a small exhibition of artefacts from the Science Museum’s acoustics collection to be held at the Science Museum’s newly-opened Dana Library and Research Centre.
  • A 7000 word journal article for the open-access Science Museum Group Journal entitled ‘Acoustics on Display: Collecting and Curating Sound at the Science Museum’ which will focus on Science Museum’s acoustics collection and will also provide an important departure point for making a broader set of arguments about issues of sound and display.

Significant results

Articles in Science Museum Group Journal:

Acoustics on Display: collecting and curating sound at the Science Museum, Dr Jennifer Rich

‘A Chamber of Noise Horrors’: sound, technology and the museum, Dr James Mansell


Nottingham Sensory Studies Network

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5757