Everywhere you look or indeed listen these days, museums from the local to the national are calling on various communities to engage with their collections through the spoken word. Curators everywhere are asking a series of questions to local, diaspora or source communities: What do you know, see, think and, indeed, What should the museum should do next? Consequently, museum curators are no longer just curators of objects; they are increasingly becoming curators of voices. Whereas most museum curators are adept at managing the interplay between various textual sources and objects, translating the nuances between voice and material has been the subject of less attention. Listening and recording these voices is therefore becoming part of a new curatorial toolkit, one posing practical considerations in terms of whether these voices should be transcribed and how they should be stored.
The vocal engagements set up by curators to draw in new communities are more often than not object-focused. Artefacts brought out of stores or looked at in displays act as an anchor – a translation point between the museum, curator and the orator. Increasingly those both researching and working with museum collections are emphasising the inherent potential of objects not only to reveal narratives and networks about the past but to actively create new ones in the present. Consequently, these processes of recording conversations in and around museum objects not only draw attention to the status of the voice but equally to the status of the object within the museum. Despite the fact that the material turn in social theory over the last fifteen years has revolutionised the status of the object and positioned it as an active agent in social relations, there remains a critique that the museum has turned its back on its objects. The ever-expanding role museums are expected to play in economic, political and community development has made some fearful that ‘collections are only secondary to their institutional mission’. EVE stills subscribe to the old adage that a museum is what it houses, and it is undoubtedly true that many museums are struggling to adequately carry out research on their collections. Therefore, the uncertain status of both the voice and the object in museums makes focusing on the interplay between them an even more fascinating pursuit.
Voices generated by and directed to objects can be difficult to translate and mediate within a museum setting. One reason for this is the inherent paradox at the heart of these encounters in terms of representation. Actively encouraging a vocalisation of objects within collections is often motivated by a need to address issues of multi-vocality or community concerns but conversely results in the very opposite, the articulations generated often being individual and personal. Crucially, these engagements raise a whole set of intellectual challenges for the museum in terms of how these voices are fed into the dissemination of knowledge and institutional politics. Whilst considerable attention has been paid to why this cacophony of voices should be encouraged and facilitated, there has been less deliberation and attention to what actually happens within these vocal engagements – these fleeting and intimate moments when objects are encountered, handled, inspected and when voices articulate, circulate, animate, intersect and collide providing a different understanding of an object.
From working with communities in museum stores – where objects lack the embellishment of exhibitionary narrative and where they are, arguably, at their rawest state – EVE has become fascinated by the processes of unpacking, uncovering and presenting objects with the intention that they will be spoken to and at. What is it about the voice that can translate meaning about objects that text cannot? EVE wants to suggest here that these momentary, impromptu, unrehearsed oral encounters between voice and object reveal something fundamental about materiality that should be of real concern to museums. If museums want to continue to encourage multi-vocality and actual vocal engagements with objects, then perhaps it is not only the content of these encounters that should be of concern to the museum but also the flow and movement of these voices within them. Consideration is needed of how the vocal register subverts the museum register and transforms and translates museum objects. Regardless of whether the facilitation of vocal encounters with museum objects are designed as a form of community outreach and engagement, or as a knowledge transfer exercise or collaborative research exercise, and regardless of whether these engagements feed into an exhibition or archive, there is little doubt that developing new ways of listening to the voices encountered would be beneficial to the museum and its staff. EVE suggests here that the perspectives within a sub-field of sociolinguistics, known as the ethnography of speaking, act as an interesting analytical framework by which the efficacy of the voice in a museum setting can be considered in a new light.