Milena J. Bem – firstname.lastname@example.org
School of Architecture
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
TROY, New York 12180
Samuel R.V. Chabot – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Jonas Braasch – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Popular version of 4aAA8 – Effects of sounds on the visitors’ experience in museums
Presented at the 185th ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0023459
Please keep in mind that the research described in this Lay Language Paper may not have yet been peer reviewed.
Have you ever wondered how a museum’s subtle backdrop of sound affects your experience? Are you drawn to the tranquility of silence, the ambiance of exhibition-congruent sounds, or perhaps the hum of people chatting and footsteps echoing through the halls?
Museums increasingly realize that acoustics are crucial in shaping a visitor’s experience. There are acoustic challenges in museum environments, such as finding the right balance between speech intelligibility and privacy, particularly in spaces with open-plan exhibition halls, coupled rooms, high volumes, and highly reflective surfaces.
Addressing the Challenge
Our proposal focuses on using sound masking systems to tackle these challenges. Sound masking is a proven and widely used technique in diverse settings, from offices to public spaces. Conventionally, it involves introducing low-level broadband noise to mask or diminish unwanted sounds, reducing distractions.
Context is Key
In recognizing the pivotal role of context in shaping human perception, strategically integrating sounds as design elements emerges as a powerful tool for enhancing visitor experiences. In line with this, we propose using sounds congruent with the museum environment more effectively than conventional masking sounds like low-level broadband noise. This approach reduces background noise distractions and enhances artwork engagement, creating a more immersive and comprehensive museum experience.
Evaluating the Effects: The Cognitive Immersive Room (CIR)
We assessed these effects using the Cognitive Immersive Room at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This cutting-edge space features a 360° visual display and an eight-channel loudspeaker system for spatial audio rendering. We projected panoramic photographs and ambisonic audio recordings from 16 exhibitions across five relevant museums — MASS MoCA, New York State Museum, Williams College Museum of Art, UAlbany Art Museum, and Hessel Museum of Art.
The Study Setup
Each participant experienced four soundscape scenarios: the original recorded soundscape in each exhibition, the recorded soundscape combined with a conventional sound masker, the recorded soundscape combined with a congruent sound masker, and “silence” which does not involve any recording, comprising the ambient room noise of 41 dB. Figure 1 shows one of the displays used in the experiment and below the presented sound stimulus.
Figure1: Birds of New York exhibition – New York State Museum. The author took the photo with the permission of the museum’s Director of Exhibitions.
Scenario 1: originally recorded soundscape in situ.
Scenario 2: recorded soundscape combined with a conventional sound masker.
Scenario 3: the recorded soundscape combined with a congruent sound masker.
After each sound stimulus, they responded to a questionnaire. It was applied through a program developed for this research where participants could interact and answer the questions using an iPad. After experiencing the four soundscapes, a final question was asked regarding the participants’ soundscape preference within the exhibition context. Figure 2 shows the experiment design.
The statistically significant results showed a clear preference for congruent sounds, significantly reducing distractions, enhancing focus, and fostering comprehensive and immersive experiences. A majority of 58% of participants preferred the congruent sound scenario, followed by silence at 20%, original soundscape at 14%, and conventional maskers at 8%.