Museum of Portable Sound, Online

When I first started writing this blog in 2016, the idea that museums would be closed to the public because of a global pandemic had, unsurprisingly, never crossed my mind. Yet here we are. Instead of adding to the list of museums I’ve been to, I’ve spent the past year making ‘to visit’ lists. I am definitely regretting my blasé, ‘I’ll do it later’, pre-pandemic approach.

A visit to the Museum of Portable Sound is one of those things that has been on my ‘to visit’ list for years, but I just never got round to. However, after months without museums, I have finally gotten round to booking myself in for a visit. It was, in the words of my friend that visited with me, “the coolest thing I have done in a long time”.

The Museum of Portable Sound is not a physical place as such, but recorded sounds stored in the iPhone 4S of the Museum’s inventor, builder, chief curator and director, John Kannenberg. Back in the pre-pandemic world you could get in touch with John and organise a meet up where he would provide you with a visitor’s guide and access to the museum and you could listen till your hearts content (bring your own headphones and remember, it’s not an app). Even though it’s not a physical place, there is a map that can guide you though the scope of the collection and help you target areas of interest.

With the option of meeting in person not possible in a pandemic, you can now book virtual visits – and I highly recommend you do! I don’t think I have ever met a more passionate museum director. John is funny, knowledgeable and tells brilliant stories about the sounds in his museum and how they were collected. He even has a physical objects collection that he introduces alongside the specific sounds you select to listen to. Admittedly I was a bit nervous, because a 1:1 visit to a museum can be a bit daunting, especially when I’m usually not a fan of a guided tour. So, to counteract this I got a friend on board too, meaning all three of us were logging in from our own homes. This is incredible really because it means that you can visit the Museum of Portable Sound from anywhere in the world, and people have! John said his first online visitor was in Brazil. We were visitor number 1624 and 1625.

So what did we listen to? Well, just like a physical museum, there is no way we could engage with it all in one visit, so we had made a list from the visitors guide (that you can look at online) of some of the things that had stood out to us. Firstly, we went to the ‘Sounds of Earth’ temporary exhibition. The story behind this 12 minute clip is, erm, out of this world. The recording is a montage of sounds intended to represent Earth’s entire history in a logarithmic rather than historical sequence. It is one of the tracks that were recorded onto a solid gold vinyl and launched into space in 1977 on board the Voyager I and II spacecraft, which is now in interstellar space. It was a pretty bizarre listen when you consider if aliens get hold of this vinyl (and somehow manage to play it) they are going to hear things like an out of context volcano, Morse code and a wild dog . . . which were some of the things that were decided represented ‘Earth’.

Not only did we travel space, we also travelled in time. We heard the world’s oldest recording of birdsong from 1910; the incredibly beautiful song of a captive nightingale, something you would now be lucky to hear in real life as they are such rarities. We even got to hear the first recording of a human voice from 9th April 1860, although it was the first recording the method of listening back to it wasn’t cracked until 2008! John also introduced us to the noise spectrum (I recommend brown and grey noise over white noise). A nostalgic highlight was listening to a recording taken of Friday Night down the pub, looking forward to hearing that in real life again!

If you’re missing getting out and about, or museum visits, or just want a distraction for a couple of hours, a visit to the Museum of Portable Sound is for you. You can even make it a virtual outing by getting your friends to go along too. I will most certainly be heading back.

You can contact the Museum of Portable Sound to book a visit. It costs £10 per person, with lower rates for children and students.

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