Directional speakers in museums make for massively more engaging exhibitions.
People come to museums to learn and be entertained. They're ready to pay attention, but environments can be full of distractions, ambient noise, or boring exhibits. It's not always a satisfying experience, and frustrated visitors won't want to tell their friends and family to visit themselves.
So what's the solution?
Carefully designed and curated immersive technologies – audio solutions, in particular.
Directional speakers, also known as focused speakers or ultrasonic speakers, broadcast sound in a straight, narrow beam. This means that only people who step into the beam can hear it, and those outside its zone cannot.
Museums and galleries are places that reward attention, so making it as easy as possible for visitors to focus is really important. Highly directional speakers are one of the best ways to do this.
This guide to directional speakers in museums covers benefits, use cases, examples, and installation advice. If you're a gallery manager or museum curator and you're wondering how to make your space more exciting and accessible, we've got the solution for you.
Think back to your school days, and a class visit to a history museum. Walking through quiet, stuffy rooms looking at artifacts and reading signs.
Even though the stories were incredible – full of conflict, drama and heroism – they weren't always very engaging.
Thankfully, museums have made their exhibitions much more interesting and accessible in recent years. Interactive displays and creative experience design is now essential for attracting and entertaining visitors.
But there's a balance to be struck. You can't just stick lights, screens and loudspeakers all over and expect everyone to enjoy the space. Especially if your art museum or gallery space offers a more thoughtful experience.
The emergence of AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) exhibits are exciting too, but some visitors can find these disorienting and nauseating, plus they raise hygiene concerns from being shared between users.
This is where directional speakers come in.
There are five main ways in which directional speakers can enhance a gallery or museum space.
It's normal for most gallery and museum audio to be centred around individual exhibits, like a painting, screen, artefact, or other display.
In this case, directional audio technology is perfect: a beam of sound only audible when someone is standing in front of the exhibit. Whether that's ambient music, a spoken-word description, or other audio enhancement - an additional sense makes museum exhibitions all the more interesting.
In a time where hygiene is of great importance to people in public spaces, any opportunity to reduce touch will help. So instead of providing headphones which might be used by 50 different people each day, you can use a directional speaker above an exhibit for an elegant solution.
Not just hygiene, but aesthetics: a pair of headphones that are put on and taken off many times a day will degrade quickly. They have visible damage and will need repairing and replacing. With a directional speaker setup, there's no physical interaction, so there's much less maintenance to perform.
Visitors to your space need serenity and quiet to process their thoughts.
If you've got various different exhibitions playing sound at the same time, you risk having a noisy atmosphere. A cacophony of different audio tracks will disturb the peace and impede concentration. The solution: directional speakers that broadcast a high quality audio guide in a narrow beam, allowing only the intended listener to hear the sound.
This means you can have multiple different sources of audio playing in a single space while preserving a sense of calm and contemplation.
It's really important to make sure everyone has the same opportunity to enjoy your museum experience, regardless of their physical capabilities.
So while museum sound systems are useful for bringing the dimension of hearing to their displays, there's also a logistical aspect to consider.
People with visual impairments can't always see signs to direct them around the different areas of the museum. Directional speakers can be deployed in certain parts of your space – entrances, exits and pathways for example – telling museum visitors what area they are about to enter. It could be a polite "please do not proceed here" or a "turn left ahead to enter the dinosaur room".
You could even connect them to a simple motion sensor to play these announcements when people walk by. Consult with your visitor services department to find out what would be most helpful.
As you'll see from the Hèrmes case study below, there's many opportunities to delight and impress visitors with innovative displays.
In spaces where sound can be targeted towards a single person, the possibilities for exciting interactive art are huge. Visitors could interact with a beam of light to trigger a sound, play notes of a musical instrument with their movement, or experience different sensory stimulation by observing an artwork from different angles amid the surrounding area.
You can check out the colourful, kaleidoscopic experiences in Blooloops' top immersive art experiences list for more inspiration.
What's exciting about these immersive technologies is that they make art and education open for all. Making exhibitions accessible and attractive for people has long been a goal of museum curators; with new technologies like this it's becoming more and more achievable. The only limit is your imagination.
The City of Architecture and Heritage is a museum of French architecture located in the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.
The museum opened the Kinshasa Chroniques exhibition in October 2020 to explore the richness of the Congolese capital. Told from the perspective of local young creators, the story of Africa's third-largest city came to life through photographs, video, comics, painting, and performance.
Truly a multi-media exhibition, Kinshasa Chroniques was much more than a reading experience for its visitors. Themed narratives were woven through the exhibition to give an in-depth view of this wonderful city.
As part of the exhibition, Akoustic Arts directional speakers were mounted above a series of photographs, giving audio context for visitors standing directly in front of them. No headphones were needed, and sound didn't leak to other nearby exhibits.
This meant that the sound didn't disturb other visitors, and the ambiance of the space was preserved.
See more in our Cité de l'Architecture case study.
Akoustic Arts has also collaborated with other institutions to embed directional sound experiences for visitors.
Check out the Hèrmes Passifolia advertising campaign for a creative way to use interactive directional audio, or our work with Mazarine agency, enhancing the Takeover exhibition with a multi-sensory video display.
So, what are the benefits of directional sound for your museum or art gallery? Here are the most significant areas in which it can make a difference:
No, it's not difficult to install directional speakers as part of your museum audio setup. Technically it's quite simple: most of your consideration will be for the user experience.
It's important to consider how you're going to use them and which part of the visitor experience you want to enhance.
If you're going for an innovative use of directional audio alongside an interactive light display, for example, you'll need to think about sound early on in the exhibition design process. What's going to trigger the sounds to play? Will users know where to stand to hear the right things? It might need a bit of testing to find the sweet spot, but that's a normal part of the creative process.
But for a standard gallery arrangement, you're most likely going to mount the speakers directly above the display. What you'll need to consider here is the surface they're going to be attached to - directly on the ceiling, or a supporting structure? Within the space, are there any other sources of sound in close proximity that might interfere with it? How will the changing flow of visitors affect the audio experience?
Also, when installing a directional sound system in your museum or gallery space you'll need to make sure there's an electrical power source nearby, or access for an electrician to make the necessary adjustments.
What about when the exhibition ends? Well, Akoustic Arts' directional speakers are easy enough to dismantle and store away, ready to be used again in another setup.
Need advice on bringing directional sound to your museum? Want to explore creative possibilities for your next exhibition? Contact us for a demo and we'll be happy to help.