How can we best use sound to support access to heritage?

by Suzie Cloves (Manchester Metropolitan University)

As part of Disability History Month 2023, Past and Present funded an event designed to answer “How can we best use sound to support access to heritage?”. This was hosted by Manchester Centre for Public Histories + Heritage (MCPHH) and its aim was to generate practical ideas that would encourage thoughtful use of sound to support access to heritage. The discussion was recorded so it could be shared as a freely available podcast and transcript, which you can find on the MCPHH blog.

“I believe that our futures are defined by the elements of our past that we choose to preserve, display, destroy or keep hidden. So I view heritage as a sort of public vocabulary for defining our identities and perpetuating our values. All the different elements of heritage – be that a shoebox of letters, or a meeting place, or a memory, or a tune – are potential parts of an ongoing conversation about what matters and where we’re going next. If any one of us is excluded from that conversation, we are excluded from exploring our identity, finding our connection to community, and from defining how we’re treated in the future. This is why many of us who work in heritage are exploring ways to make its elements open and accessible.”
Suzie Cloves, MCPHH researcher & discussion anchor, introduces the event

The event was in two parts: a structured discussion between guest panellists and public audience, and a professional DJ set which showcased the art of sampling as a sonic heritage framework. The audience included gallery, library, archive, museum professionals, and interested members of the public who ranged from artists to engineers. The panel of guest speakers included:

  • Luke Beesley (Researcher at University of Liverpool, Archive Lead at Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People)
  • David Govier (Sound Archivist at Manchester Archives+)
  • Steve Graby (Access and Inclusion Worker at Disabled People’s Archive, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People)
  • Olivia Hewkin (Museum, Galleries and Heritage Programme Manager at VocalEyes)
  • Mariana López (Professor in Sound Production and Post Production, University of York)

and the discussion was anchored by MCPHH researcher Suzie Cloves, who is a specialist in the use of geolocated sound for heritage communication and research. The discussion structure was presented as a problem-solving exercise. Three questions were asked to elicit examples of best practice, and of practice that could be improved, then to collectively work out what improvements might lift the “not so good” examples into the best practice category. Our intention was that the audience would feel comfortable enough to join the discussion, so the panellists were there to do the heavy lifting, but the audience was invited to answer each question as well.

Four people spread out in an orderly row in front of book stacks in a library. One of them is speaking earnestly and everyone looks serious.

Photograph: Manchester Centre for Public Histories + Heritage (2023), all rights reserved

Q1: What sort of sonic experience are we aiming for?

What are some really good ways that sound has improved your experience of heritage? It can be a public setting or behind the scenes.
asking for examples of best practice

To set the bar and get a sense of what to aim for, the first question asked for examples of best practice use of sound (or experiences of sound) in any heritage settings. Common themes emerged around sound’s ability to have a powerful and immediate empathetic effect, the benefits of sound as an inherent (and invisibly accessible) aspect of a heritage narrative, satisfaction when a method for triggering sound is thematically relevant to a narrative, and satisfaction with well-balanced sound design or well-implemented sonic technology. Specific examples included:

  • the humanizing effect of being able to hear an idolized political philosopher lose their temper in an archived Dictaphone recording
  • a seamless experience at Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments, where recordings of exhibited instruments played automatically when the visitor moved near to each one with a handheld audio guide
  • an upcoming Wellcome Trust exhibition which will include inherent invisibly accessible audio description by the disabled artist who is the subject of the exhibition
  • the well-balanced use of sound in the People’s History Museum (Manchester) Nothing About Us Without Us exhibition, which never became sonically chaotic or overwhelming despite multiple sounds being used
  • oral histories in the synagogue thats preserved at Manchester Jewish Museum, which are activated by physically placing oneself in the interlocutor’s position in the synagogue seats
  • at Glasgow Riverside Museum, the oral histories of Italian immigrant ice-cream makers which you can listen to whilst sitting having a rest in a beautiful reconstructed ice-cream parlour
  • at Speke Hall (Liverpool), a sonic reconstruction of what it might have been like to be hiding inside the (physically inaccessible) priest hole during the Catholic purges of Elizabethan England
  • he use of 1990s CD-reviewing booths in the record shop exhibition in Manchester Museum’s South Asian room
  • the Working Class Movement (Manchester) library’s Invisible Histories blog, which is a sound heritage exhibit and repository done brilliantly on a very low budget

Q2: What hasn’t worked so well for you?

“It’s very important now that you don’t name and shame any organizations, [because] heritage is often underresourced and on a steep learning curve. But so we can understand and hopefully surmount the challenges around use of sound in heritage settings, I’m now inviting you to gently dish the dirt. What hasn’t worked so well for you?”
asking for examples of notsogood practice

Common themes that emerged from the not-best-practice examples focused around excluding people who would use sound to access heritage by failing to consult them when designing sonic access, wasting resources by putting sound into practice before asking accessibility and sound experts how to do it well, making heritage inaccessible or incomprehensible with poorly designed or badly controlled sonic environments, failure to get sound collections out from repositories and into the world, and ethical issues around use of sound to convey traumatic heritage. Examples given included:

  • live audio description (AD) of an opera which was broadcast (from a gantry above the stage with the sound of the singers included alongside the AD) at a two second lag behind the actual performance, rendering it totally unlistenable
  • pre-recorded audio description for live theatre which didn’t match or sync with what was happening on stage
  • a heritage organization insisting on using QR codes (i.e., a visual medium) to trigger audio description for use by blind and partially blind people
  • a venue having sonic accessibility technology but not training its staff about what that’s for or how to use it
  • two events that were drowned out by sound from adjacent events, particularly for wheelchair users whose designated area was far from the stage
  • failure to use honest sonic reconstructions of traumatic heritage
  • large well-funded sound repository websites that are written in academic lingo that makes no sense to public visitors
  • a city library depending on Heritage Lottery grants for one-off sound exhibits but not funding ongoing curation or digitization of their vulnerable collections
  • a heritage cinema where the staff members didn’t know how to operate the AD headsets, embarrassing the blind visitor who needed to use the AD, and disrupting the screening for everyone else
  • sound heritage repositories not making their collection catalogues visible enough to the public or researchers
  • sound assets being kept inside archives and institutions instead of being put out into the world in everyday venues (such as cafes or old phone boxes)
  • building and exhibition design using hard surfaces, poor quality speakers and poor speaker placement, making sounds chaotic and impossible to understand
  • failure to design services with accessibility principles built in from the start

Q3: What’s the difference? How can we lift the not-so-good examples into best practice?

  • recognise that accessibility measures don’t just help a small minority of people – integrated accessibility usually has far-reaching benefits for the broad population – such as audio description making your visual assets more memorable for sighted visitors
  • consult with disabled visitors and sound technicians from the start of exhibition design instead of tacking it on as an afterthought – this will give you better design and better value in the long run
  • don’t just consult a passive focus group then do whatever you pleaseco-create, co-curate and co-monitor with a diverse group to give yourself every chance to get the balance right and avoid wasting resources
  • improve education and training about accessibility design, adaptations and toolkits
  • more money (please), but spend it wisely by building something from the ground up, for your collection’s community, using language that makes sense to them instead of using funding application jargon
  • design from the understanding that sound tends to generate immediate emotional effects
  • design sound installations so that the method of interaction is thematically relevant to the story that you’re telling, and helps to put the listener in the storyteller’s shoes
  • treat each context afresh rather than shoehorning one-size-fits-all solutions
  • have a discussion about how to honestly represent traumatic heritage using sound without traumatising listeners
  • get sounds out of the archives and into our public environments
  • don’t start from the assumption that disabled people are vulnerable and need protecting
  • don’t assume that AI and algorithms will solve all your problems!

We ended the event feeling collectively inspired and keen to get our teeth into the design challenges and solutions presented by our discussion! Wed like to thank everyone who spoke at the event for sharing their excellent ideas, and hope that they’re helpful for other heritage practitioners. If you’d like to discuss any of the topics and issues raised by the event please contact the event organizer Suzie Cloves.

MCPHH is based at Manchester Metropolitan University. We create a shared platform for public histories + heritage by collaborating with community groups, the public, academics, students, galleries, libraries, archives, museums and historic sites. We share knowledge about the practice and purpose of public history research via public talks and a regular podcast and newsletter. We’re very approachable, so please do get in touch if you’d like to discuss a potential project, talk or workshop.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

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