You don’t go to visit the Museum of Portable Sound — the MOPS comes to you.
London's best museum experiences are often found in its tiny, quirky venues, which hang on through resourcefulness and love. In the case of the new Museum of Portable Sound — which is, literally, a case, map and iPhone, and the curator who comes with them — the small museum finds its ultimate expression, and the experience it offers is well worth a listen.
Would-be visitors book via the website and suggest a public space. Visits have happened in cafes, parks, pubs, hotels and — Inception-like — within other museums. We chose the Hoi Polloi cafe in Shoreditch's Ace Hotel, hoping the wood partitions would provide some sound control.
Sounds as cultural objects
John Kannenberg is the mind behind the MOPS. "The beeps that your microwave oven makes, the transmission of a car, all these sounds are a huge part of our daily life, and they're always changing," he explains. "But traditional museums aren't trying to preserve them."
He's on a mission to promote sounds as cultural objects, so that the noise of a glitching MacBook, for example, might have a place next to an actual MacBook in some future museum of technology.
But for now, there is the MOPS, and it’s a thing of beauty. The tour takes the museum experience seriously — you can bring your own headphones, or 'check out' the museum's headphones (but only if you surrender some form of ID). Kannenberg hands you a gallery guide and map, and you're left to wander the four floors (and more than three hours of sound) of the MOPS via its iPhone housing for as long as your ears desire. Meanwhile, Kannenberg busies himself nearby.
What's inside the Museum Of Portable Sound?
The sounds range from historical 'firsts' in sound reproduction to Kannenberg's own contemporary field recordings from oddball places around the world. There’s a track from the first ever CD (1979), and the ghostly first recording of a human voice via Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph (long before Edison, Martinville's apparatus transcribed sound waves on smoked paper, but only recently did anyone think to scan those lines and transcribe them into audio files).
London's soundscape isn't neglected, either, especially when it comes to sounds of culture. There's Kannenberg's own recording of John Cage's 4'33’" at South Bank University's anechoic (completely sound-absorbing) chamber, the sound of a flipping slide projector at the Hayward gallery, and a very funny recording Kannenberg made at the Guildhall Art Gallery during a fire alarm. Like any good museum visitor, we ignore the suggested order and head straight for 'Glitches' on the Science and Technology floor, then make our way to the (apparently quite popular) plumbing and heating gallery. Jumping between floors, we listen to joyful noise at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame and hear the musical announcements of a Strasbourg tram. We have a true moment of wonder hearing the exhaust fan of the Internet Archive Backup Server housed at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a collaboration with archive.org, the entity that backs up the whole of the Internet.
Part museum, part conceptual art
There's enough to keep us completely absorbed for an hour and a half, after which we fire questions at Kannenberg. How many more sounds will he collect? Can people donate sounds? We take away one very important message: the sound-objects will never be available to download, duplicate or stream (the Museum will never be an 'app'), as that runs counter to Kannenberg’s whole project.
"It is as much a work of conceptual art as it is a museum," he says. "I categorise it as post-internet art. It's art that is made in reaction to the online world, that acknowledges the existence of the internet but does not necessarily exist on the internet.
"Yes, it would be easier to put it online, but online experiences are commonplace now. Now it is extremely uncommon to have a face to face meeting with someone.
"I also see it as a piece of activism to help promote close listening, which is something completely lost in the post-digital realm. Listening is reduced to background noise for some other activity, just another component of multitasking. I want to encourage people to stop and mindfully listen to the world around them so they can hear what they're missing."
So for those who wish to visit what surely has to be London’s smallest museum, our advice is to book now, to beat the crowds.