Exhibitions

Why do some museums insist on playing piped music into exhibitions?

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

There was a genteel brouhaha last year — leaders in the Times, letters to the Telegraph, tutting in the galleries — about the British Museum’s decision to play Pan-pipe music into its exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Did the gold torcs and coin hoards sparkle the more for the looped song of Pan-pipes? Not really, and it didn’t half annoy visitors.

Not put off by the British Museum’s Pan-pipe complaints, Compton Verney in Warwickshire has been at the jukebox for its Shakespeare in Art: Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy. The exhibition takes Caliban’s ‘the isle is full of noises’ literally, giving us wishy-washy wave sounds and shiver-me-timbers deck-creaking for The Tempest, recordings of Ophelia’s mad, mournful singing and Gertrude’s ‘there is a willow grows’ speech for Hamlet, chirruping birds for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and plingy-plangent lute music for the history plays. In one unfortunate spot you hear birds, Gertrude and lute all together. In the ambient-music business this is known as ‘sound bleed’.

These competing noises do great disservice to the art. If Henry Fuseli is any good at theatrical painting — and at his best he is the most marvellous old 18th-century ham — he doesn’t need musical accompaniment, nor a special lighting machine spinning misty ‘blasted heath’ effects around the gallery. While Fuseli may not be a perfect technician — close-up his paintings have a rapid, unfinished quality — he knew how to do drama. His tight claustrophobic portrait of the ‘The Three Witches’ (1782) has the oppressive closeness of a nightmare, while his ‘Macbeth, Banquo and Witches on the Heath’ (1794) imagines the returning army as bleached, spectral and more dead than alive. The two commanders are tense and battle-shattered, stiffened to bronze and stone in their fright at the witches.

The exhibition, staged to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, is billed as presenting ‘artistic responses’ to his most popular plays. Some of it is artistic responses, some of it backstage ephemera from memorable productions. All of it’s a muddle.


There are Fuseli’s history paintings and John Singer Sargent’s ‘Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth’ (1889), terrible and gimlet-eyed in her emerald sleeves. There are contemporary responses from installation artists Davy and Kristin McGuire, whose ‘Ophelia’s Ghost’ (2014) projects a holographic drowned woman into a bath-coffin of water, and photographer Tom Hunter who recasts A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010) in Hackney bars and strip clubs. Without the captions it would take some imaginative leap to know that a samba dancer snoozing on the baize of a snooker table was embodying ‘There sleeps Titania’.

There is a brick wall with a chink to blink through with thine eye, a poem by Kate Tempest, recited, mercifully, through headphones, and rehearsal photographs, set models, costume designs and a demonstration of the stage trick Pepper’s ghost. All the while, the lute is plucked and the birds twitter.

The rest, happily, is silence. Across the stairwell, an admirably clear-sighted companion exhibition, Boydell’s Vision: The Shakespeare Gallery in the 18th Century, examines the efforts of the print entrepreneur John Boydell to establish a temple to Shakespeare on Pall Mall with scenes from his plays painted by the artists of the day. It was vastly expensive — Joshua Reynolds was given £500 for his first commission — and, in the end, vastly ruinous.

But the enterprise was promising to begin with. The gallery opened in May 1789 with 34 paintings by 18 artists; 20,000 visitors attended and 6,600 catalogues were sold. All the paintings were engraved and available to buy as prints.

There are fine examples here, among them Fuseli’s ‘Titania and her melancholy Bottom’ (1790) and Joseph Wright of Derby’s scene from The Tempest, engraved by Robert Thew (1790–92). Miranda wraps her arm around the neck of the absurdly dressed Ferdinand and murmurs: ‘Oh brave new world that has such trousers in it.’

There is an inspired digital recreation of the Shakespeare Gallery as it was hung, mapped by Professor Janine Barchas of the University of Texas, but otherwise there is no whizz-bang noise and nonsense. It is a small show, but superb.

Compton Verney is also toasting the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose serpentine lake and paths wend through the park. Leave yourself time for a walk. It is blessedly quiet among the ashes and oaks.

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Show comments
  • JohnnyNorfolk

    I hate any kind of imposed music. It should not be allowed. Would you like to only listen to the music I like and I do not wish to listen to the music you like. It just shows how ignorant the mass of people are that put up with it.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Ah yes, ban all sound which you don’t like, etc.

      And those ignorant peons, well!

      • sparrow-hawk

        No, ban stupid people from IMPOSING their stupid music on others. Get it?

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Yes, I get you want to ban things on the basis of you ever hearing anything you don’t like. Silence for those with other views, etc.

          • sparrow-hawk

            Extrapolating what I say into something I never implied is called “puttting words into someone’s mouth” – a sign of poor ability to reason. Silencing other viewpoints is only connected with showing consideration for others in your own twisted mind. And you can have the last word; I’m done with you.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            No, forcing silence of anything you don’t like is not in any way consideration, it’s suppression, and your calling not having your totalitarian suppression “twisted” shows exactly why – you have also dismissed anything outside your totalitarian views of control as not being rational, indeed.

            There are rules for noise in i.e. residential areas.
            This is not remotely the same as your desire to ban all sound which offends you.

      • Tory Thinker?

        Idiot

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Mr. Idiot, as you call yourself, your habit of self-confessedly spewing nonsense spam everywhere is just sad.

      • Numpty McTumshie

        Another tastless chav.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Yea, he is, oh well.

    • Numpty McTumshie

      Indeed. In a world with portable music and headphones, piped music should be banned in all public places. Offends me far more than second-hand smoke.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        You don’t have a right not to be offended.

        • vieuxceps2

          ” You don’t have a right not to be offended”- whereas you do have a right to offend,with your music and your smoke?And what if poor Numpty is a member of a minority? Then he has every right not to be offended,hasn’t he?

          • Leon Wolfeson

            What I said stands, as you make up lies and talk about your issues with minorities…

          • vieuxceps2

            ….as …..and ……..as …..as……and…….Enough already!

          • Leon Wolfeson

            Facts, why won’t they stop!

          • vieuxceps2

            Only your “facts” can move.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            Ah, so you deny that other views are valid.

    • Sue Smith

      What about modern documentary programs on TV – screaming all that computer-generated noise and music; whooshing, blasting, tap tapping (to denote danger) and other mindless noises. I find I cannot tolerate modern TV documentaries now because of this gratuitous noise, obviously aimed at the lowest common denominator. I’m not the audience these producers are wanting. It reminds me of Alexei Sayle (“Stuff”) in the early 90s, lampooning modern action films, when he said in a skit; “You’ve seen Things Exploding 1; well this time EVERYTHING EXPLODES”!!!

    • vieuxceps2

      then do as I do and complain about it. It often works.

  • justejudexultionis

    ‘Why do some museums insist on playing piped music into exhibitions?’ —

    And why do lots of middle-class people worry about trivial bourgeois bull****? The country is falling apart, we have not yet recovered from the 2008 crash, our industrial base is being decimated, our national assets have been sold off to the highest bidders, our politicians are indolent fools and/or in the pocket of offshore trusts and multinational corporations, London has turned its back on the rest of the country, our freedoms are threatened by the Islamic enemy within, and the Spectator sees fit to publish this trite, self-indulgent pabulum. Get a grip.

    • Numpty McTumshie

      And you must be the kind of tasteless chav who enjoys pubs it’s impossible to have a conversation in.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        He must be like you? Hmm.

        Look, just because people won’t talk to you…

      • vieuxceps2

        Agreed. Why on earth do pubs play music,any music ,but usually inane pop-music? I always request it it be turned down or off and usuaally get a good response.After that you can hear people actually talking to each other. Amazing.

    • Sue Smith

      To “the highest bidder”? Luxury. Be glad they’re the “highest” and not the lowest.

    • vieuxceps2

      So you read the pabulum ,did you? Why?

  • What they should also be showing, if they are not, is the art and work associated Francis Bacon, the true Shakespeare, which can be found on Pinterest.com under the name of The Royal Secret

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    No canned musical accompaniment for BritMus trasures on loan to the National Museum in Sinapore.

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