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Putting together my first collection

Hello! My name is Renata and I started volunteering with Museum in a Box just a few weeks before this little world of ours closed for maintenance.

Starting at Museum in a Box

I started by reaching out to HQ to know a little more about Museum in a Box, and the work that the team was doing in that funky intersection where museum collections, playful education and mixed media hang out. It felt like such a malleable and imaginative idea, like the plasticine of museums. I thought it would be really cool to learn from a project working on how museum content and practices are experienced, made less formal, and shared broadly, and was particularly curious about how sound design and recording enables that.

After meeting George, Charlie and the beauty that is the HQ maker space, I got inexplicably excited about an idea that George mentioned – a collection of everyday noises. I really wanted to be a little part of it, and was immediately so happy to join. I think I found putting together a bunch of noises—something that can intuitively feel so meaningless—making them informative and joyous in their own understated ways to be a fun twist on what we believe museums to be. The idea of creating something with sound as its own nucleus and lowering the threshold for collecting things / making things / being excited about things were simply energising ideas to me.

(Also there was some excellent homemade ginger cake. What’s not to love?)

Why museums and sound?

I love museums as spaces of shared information. It’s really exciting to see how we collect objects: how we think about different materials and shapes and colours and functions, how we celebrate and exhibit objects with different levels of domesticity, the public and the private, the meeting points between intimacy and belonging. It’s a kind of topography almost, all things elevated and grounded, and the energy of both co-existing. Not making the ordinary any more extraordinary, but instead looking after it as its own enriched thing precisely because it is someone’s. Or trying to make sense of that either/or space where things live outside categories. Or when collections go ‘hey, let’s not exist inside a museum, but be somewhere else instead’. I like all of it.

Part of this was growing more and more curious about sound and how it is a portable, shareable, weightless container for information, storytelling, and textures. How sound can be something so familiar and modular, like words and noises in our homes, or something so new and informative, like music and signals from outer space or soundscapes from places we haven’t visited. And at a time like this, where physicality and presence are taking different forms, sound has been everywhere for me – objects that make sound and objects that carry sound, the sounds from the outside like little portals, the sounds and echoes of places we want to return to. I even found myself thinking about how different museum galleries sound, how each has its own base silence. Maybe I’ll make a collection about that?

Making a first collection

I had the joy of putting together a little Box of Noises, recording a few comforting / frustrating sounds at home, and thinking about what I found meaningful about them – the urgency, the softness, the cadence, my lack of descriptive sonic lexicon to precisely talk about each of those samples and resorting to comparisons and other senses to help me through. Got to love a bit of synaesthesia!

https://heart.museuminabox.org/view_collection/462

I learned a few things along the way, which I share with you now. I hope they can help you create your first collection too:

1. Accumulating a lot of samples will probably happen

Hopefully that means you’re enjoying the collection process! For me it was like suddenly I had created a radar for myself – every noise became a discoverable, recordable, at least marginally interesting sound. As simple as this might sound, even the really mundane objects became producers of sound.

I ended up running to my phone a few times to record the sound of something impermanent, re-enacting dish stacking and testing the same bag zipper going up and down an embarrassing number of times. The fact that I was collecting stuff had this almost activation energy about it.

2. Devise a system of organisation / archiving that works for you

This may or may not be your jam, but I found having a dual system really helpful – a manual and a digital one.

Fig.1 – My first plan for the collection: a piece of paper with a speculative list of noises I thought to collect and a grid to help me visualise where to place each illustration. The back of that page had my shopping list for that week. The spreadsheet is my final database of noises, including the room where they were recorded, the number of version for each sound, and the different colours which refer to different collection ideas, placing each sample into one or more collection it could live in. The orange ones made my final selection, with purple and green indicating a strong maybe / let’s save it for a gamified version of secret mystery noises. 

The paper list was first, the pre-recording part. It’s great for lots of brainstorming, and especially good if you like working in non-designated spaces, drawing and making connections between ideas really freely. I adore Excel (conditional formatting would probably feature in my version of My Favourite Things), so I used that as my post-recording organiser. It was great to lay out my samples, select the ones I wanted to use for the Box of Noises and allocate the remaining ones to other collection ideas I had. It was especially good to play around with placing samples in different collections and change things around without disturbing the structure too much or repeating sounds.

3. Lower the entry point for production quality

My biggest inhibition recording sound has always been the quality of my equipment – I don’t own anything immensely professional when it comes to recorders, microphones or audio software. Whilst I do think that a crisp, clean sound makes an enormous difference, it was really refreshing to just confirm for myself that recording with a phone is possible and plenty. I also ended up finding some fun details in my messy, occasionally static, full-of-background samples – subtle birdsong, my feet walking about, fire crackling under a pot full of boiling water. What you intended to record becomes a little more surprising.

I illustrated each sound, and edited my illustrations on PowerPoint and Paint, and using them was, quite simply, pure childlike joy. Using what you’ve got is more than enough.

Calling things things is OK too.

4. Metadata is cool

As the little child who would sketch and take notes at museums (public apology to my mum and dad, and anyone who has ever had the unsolicited misfortune of coming to an exhibition with me), I found the idea of adding my own metadata to be a super cool feature. Although I haven’t yet added any details to my Box of Noises, it creates a really exciting investigative vibe for the whole process. I was suddenly curious about the brand of the kettle, the number of decibels on the fridge beep, the names and numbers of the colours on the pencils I was using. A language of precision became really indulgent. It is also a cool way to make you think about how you might map out an exhibition – what categories would you go for? Would you walk the visitor through your objects chronologically? Or organise your samples according to the different parts of the house where they were recorded? Or flow from samples of natural sounds to samples of mechanical ones? Maybe organise them from softer to noisier materials? So many possibilities!

5. Respond to your own questions by experimenting

This might be the most powerful thing about creating your own sound collection. You have the immediacy to play around with variables, see how the sound changes, record again, try again a little later, satisfy whatever questions pop into your brain by testing things out.

How would the sound of sizzling onions change if I added bigger chunks? How would different faucet openings change the stream of water and its sound? How different are the sound waves and peaks produced when opening and closing doors, packages and strips of Velcro in slower versus faster movements? You can get to really funky variations of the same noise and really isolate what is most interesting about it.

6. Record patterns and collection ideas that come up during the process

I ended up having a bunch of leftover samples, but not in a way that felt wasteful. I ended up wanting to make something with them – future collections, writing prompts, sound effects for future birthday videos I will probably end up making for friends. It was super useful to have a growing list of things I would like to make collections about. Some of them were inspired by common patterns in the sound samples I collected, some were inspired by the objects themselves and the comforting act of meaningfully collecting.

I am working on a collection called Hydrophonics because so many of the sounds ended up being of water in different containers, with different pressures, hitting different materials. I ended up realising that my daily sound production is mostly opening and closing things – doors, packages, fruit, books –, so I’d like to do a little collection solely on Opening and Closing Things. If collections are part of our acts of remembrance, I would like to grieve The Objects I’ve Lost and think of how to showcase objects that simply aren’t here with me anymore. (This is an At Home version of a project we had talked about at HQ back in March, which is cool to think about because it means that we can adapt big ideas into something that can be done from our corners and with our current resources.)

Keep track of all those thought bubbles that appear when you start realising the interesting intersections between your sounds and your objects, maybe it’ll lead you somewhere next.

7. Copyright is funky and a little confusing

I found this part a little tricky.

A good place to start is to record all your own sounds and create all your own illustrations or photographs, so you know you’re not taking any work from anywhere else. That’s also a good way to really explore your own territory of sounds and ideas, and see how enriched it is already.

However, when thinking of other collection ideas, I realised that some of it was going to involve compiling things from other sources, and overlapping some of my thoughts on them. I am still learning how to work with copyright to honour the work of others, and communicate that transparency in the best way possible. I am still not too sure how to best go about it, but I think it is something worth thinking about and referencing as well as possible when putting your collection together. Also, when you create your collection and choose the licensing settings, you can click on the links to find out more about how each type can be used – something I really appreciated!

8. Adapt big things into little things

Putting this collection together was a great reminder that our homes are full of cool things to explore and dignify. We can’t go to museums right now, which means we can be resourceful in other ways and really stretch how far we can go with the concepts of big words like collections, exhibitions, museum, knowledge.

Whatever is accessible to you at the moment can live in a collection. You can make your own collection of cubist drawings or use cardboard boxes to make your own galleries. But mostly, you can turn that V&A exhibition about Disobedient Objects into your own collection of things that you might have used to rebel. Take the idea of a series of archived sci-fi objects into a collection of your favourite ones. Put together some homemade sounds that could be part of a catalogue of sci-fi sound effects. A gallery of world instruments into things that make misleadingly percussive sounds at home. You can use the sounds you are recording to localise those big ideas. If museums are spaces of preservation, it’s like you get to make your own pickles. You can make At Home versions of these huge artistic movements and practices. For example, I have found research to be immensely enjoyable and freeing. I ended up finding out more about pencil manufacturing, Japanese onomatopoeias and different cloud classifications.

One of my favourite things about Museum in a Box is museum and home collections co-exist, at least for now, and I think there is something really grounding about that. 

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