Eric De Visscher, Director, Cité de la Musique, Paris

Sight and Sound: from a museum of instruments to a museum of music

How to present music in museums, while its natural place would rather be the concert hall or the private home, where one listens or plays music? What kind of experience does the museum offer to the visitor who either knows about music or, on the contrary, wants to learn about it? What kind of tools can be used by museums to account for the living and ephemeral character of music, while exhibiting mostly static objects and documents?

At the Musée de la musique in Paris, which opened its doors in 1997, we have developed a number of ways of exhibiting music, both in the permanent collection as in temporary exhibitions. Taking examples from projects such as the reinstallation of the collection in 2009, “Touchez la musique” (2013) and exhibitions devoted to Miles Davis, Paul Klee or “Musique et Cinéma”, we shall have a closer look at these strategies through which we have gradually evolved from a museum of instruments to a true museum of music, a quite ambitious goal per se.

The question raised by these exhibitions is then: why do people attend exhibitions about music? Does it truly offer a renewed experience of music, when outside of its “natural” environment? And reversely, does this presence of music within museums alter the conception that one can have of museums themselves? Sound in museum galleries, in any form, does change the perception one can have of these spaces, of the architecture and the design, as well as of the presentation of artefacts, thereby creating linkages that one would probably not perceive when looking at separate, discrete objects, framed or stacked in vitrines. The sense of time is obviously different when one visits a museum while listening to music. But sounds can rapidly become intrusive or, on the other hand, insignificant and monotonous.

That’s why any reflection on music in museums has to include its counterpart: silence!