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Uni Stuttgart and Linden-Museum research museum acoustics

Drums polarised, everyday noises disturb

Whether a museum is capable of conveying a topic successfully also depends on how the visitors feel in the museum rooms. An important but to date less researched influencing factor is thereby the museum’s acoustics.

Prof. Martin Fromm (Chair of Pedagogy) and Prof. Philip Leistner (Chair of Building Physics) from the University of Stuttgart are now investigating these connections in cooperation with Stuttgart Linden-Museum. An exhibition of African masks was set up in a room laboratory on the Vaihingen Campus especially for the experimental part of the study.

The interdisciplinary research project is one of the winners of the competition “Mind meets Machine“ at the University of Stuttgart, in which teams were able to participate, each comprising engineering scientists and natural scientists as well as humanities scholars and social scientists.

In recent decades museums have undergone a significant expansion of their task scope. Communication and presentations have been added to the traditional tasks of collection, conservation and research. Today many of the approximately 7,000 museums in Germany are understood to be educational institutes and places of learning intended to convey to the broad public culturally significant contents. How successful they are with their work is, however, largely unknown in spite of a century of visitor research. This particularly applies if it concerns internal processes, such as perceptions and learning processes and how these are influenced through the design of exhibitions. For example, it is unknown what effect certain room conditions have. Along with room temperature and air quality, it is the acoustics in particular that have an impact on the feeling of wellbeing as well as concentration and learning processes. These effects are known in offices or classrooms. Observations and surveys conducted among visitors give us reason to believe there are also similar connections in museums. In many rooms contemplation and communication collide so that visitors entertain themselves at best by whispering and children are reminded to be quiet. In this way museums are frequently experienced as sterile, even oppressive places.

Yet what kind of acoustic atmosphere can visitors expect? How do they assess the largely tranquil atmosphere compared to typical everyday noises or sound installations in exhibition exhibits? In order to research these questions the scientists exposed the visitors to the room laboratory with various acoustic scenarios – from traffic noises up to rhythmic drums. Ultimately they ascertained the assessment of around 60 trial persons aged between 18 and 65 years of age and then analysed these results.

Avoiding constant acoustic irradiation
The result showed that most test persons preferred the rest condition, whilst everyday background noises such as steps, voices or passing car are clearly a disturbing factor. “This assessment surprised us in its obviousness since the everyday noises are presented at whisper sound intensity“, explained Prof. Fromm and Prof. Leistner. In contrast, the clearly louder drum sounds presented as auditory scenery for the exhibited masks were not only assessed as negative. “This sound scenario had a polarising effect: the music offered an atmospheric context for one group, others felt their concentration disturbed when reading the texts“, observed the scientists. Based on these findings, the scientists concluded that museum rooms should support a peaceful atmosphere, suppress disturbances and above all, however, avoid “acoustic constraints“. Sound installations as effective elements to support the authenticity of exhibits should not become constant acoustic irradiation but should rather enable individual freedom of choice.

The project has a pilot character for the scientists. A difference is indeed to be made between the laboratory investigations and the real situation in a museum, for example in view of the length of stay and motivation of the visitors. However, the findings offer substantiated connection points in order to contribute towards the acoustically and didactically appealing museum design with further studies in the laboratory and on site. The Stuttgart Linden-Museum is extremely interested in the research results, emphasised its Director Prof. Inés De Castro: “We would also like to address the exhibition visitors on a sensual level. The auditory experience thereby plays an important role. Exhibition design and acoustic atmosphere embed the objects in a new context and ease access to the portrayed contents.“

Further information:

Prof. Dr. phil. Martin Fromm, University of Stuttgart, Chair for Pedagogy, Tel. 0711/685-87440

Email: martin.fromm (at)

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Philip Leistner, University of Stuttgart, Chair for Building Physics, Tel. 0711/970 3346,

Email: philip.leistner (at)

Andrea Mayer-Grenu | idw
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