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Acoustics in Museums: The Science of Sound

A museum outfitted with ASI Architectural acoustic materials

Creating Great Acoustics in Museums

When we mention the word “acoustics” in museum settings, many of us may think of an echo chamber. We may try to spend afternoons in the galleries peacefully contemplating the pieces, but all the ambient sounds can be distracting. People discussing the artwork across the exhibition hall may inadvertently influence the quality of your experience. The Baroque designs of classic museums helped to spread out sound energy and reduce distinct echoes. However, modern museums can leave a lot to be desired.

The reason is that most modern museums have embraced simplicity to highlight the art, but that simplicity leads to hard, flat sound-reflective surfaces which are detrimental to the acoustics in any space. Very little sound is absorbed, and we hear every noisy tap and squeak in the room. To make things worse, much of the artwork is protected by glass, which is another smooth, flat reflective surface. This can cause issues ranging from annoyance to unhealthy sound levels. There are steps you can take in the design process to minimize echo and reduce reflected sound in museums if you are aware of the problem and the solutions available.

Acoustics in Museums: The Science of Sound

In order to mitigate sound issues in any space, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how sound waves travel. Depending on the type of surface, when sound energy arrives at a surface, it either bounces off completely or some of the wave energy gets absorbed. When a surface is smooth and hard, it reflects nearly all the sound energy, creating echoes and reverberation, which cause destructive interference when combined with original sounds.

This jumble of reflected sound will amplify the sound energy present and can be highly distracting. When waves hit sound-absorbent surfaces, those surfaces reduce the energy level of sound reflections, reducing the amount of echo and reverberation in the space. This reduction in echo and reverberation creates what is known as an “acoustically natural” environment in the space, with some ambiance and less reflected sound energy. This is the goal for a better sounding ambiance in a lecture hall, a library, or a museum.

A woman gazes at still life portraits in an art museum equipped with ASI Architectural acoustic panels.

Decorating with Sound-Absorbent Materials

Understanding how sound waves react with different surfaces allows us to make some educated decisions on building materials. Sound-absorbent materials should be incorporated to the degree possible to achieve a balance of reflection and absorption. Depending on what part of the room you are working with, the solutions available offer several design choices.

While a concrete floor and a wood floor are essentially both large, flat surfaces, wood is slightly more sound-absorbent than concrete, meaning it will absorb a bit more sound (and mainly at high frequencies). But not all people have the means to make expensive changes to the floors. Since floors leave few choices when it comes to materials, especially in an existing space, you’ll want to focus on the walls and ceilings.

Working with Walls

Painted drywall surfaces often showcase the art on display, but they don’t absorb sound energy. Many commercial acoustical products could be used in and on the walls, and some of those products could be perceived as art. When art is your business, however, you need to have more acoustical product choices available to present the art in the best way possible. 

If you’re doing a substantial renovation or building from the ground up, you may decide to incorporate micro-perforated wood veneer surfaces or plank-and-reveal products into wall construction. Whether you prefer a linear plank design with an acoustical backer or a design that incorporates micro-perf absorber panels to add an extra dimension to your walls, there are many product options to choose from. The linear plank wood species and panel veneers can be finished to work with your design aesthetic and will help absorb unwanted sounds.

A woman gazes at a mounted art piece in an art museum outfitted with ASI Architectural sound reduction panels.

Another option would be to use sound absorbing wall panels interspaced with the art pieces. Most pieces in a museum are hung at eye level for obvious reasons. This also means they are hung at mouth level, reflecting everyone’s conversations into the rest of the room. Adding sound-absorbing panels at the same level between art pieces will help reduce voice reflections, keeping the gallery quieter. Absorber panels can be fabric-wrapped fiber material (with many fabric color options) or micro-perforated aluminum panels that resemble fabric but are also effective sound absorbers and are easy to clean and maintain.

Treating the Ceilings

Ceilings make up a very large portion of any space, so it’s an important flat surface when dealing with sound reflections. Galleries may suspend a few pieces from the ceiling, but it’s usually unused space. Adding acoustic treatments here will help in creating a more noise-free experience.

Decorating with the previously-mentioned microperf veneer-faced or microperf aluminum commercial ceiling clouds can give a simple, artistic look to the ceilings, while also reducing echo and reverberation. Cloud ceilings can be suspended from steel tube frames or with aircraft cable hangers, and several are available in flat, concave, and convex surfaces. Perforated Cloud ceilings lined with an acoustical backer are excellent sound absorbers. Cloud ceilings carry the added advantage of visually breaking up large expanses of space.

If you prefer a solid ceiling attached directly to the structure, many of the same acoustical architectural products available to treat your walls can also be used on ceilings. You can mix and match patterns, and because they have a wood face, many of them can be painted or stained to match your room’s décor. Similar products made of metal or textured wood pulp provide a modern look.

Taking the Plunge

Once you decide you want to acoustically treat your rooms, the next decision is whether to specify the project on your own or utilize an acoustical consulting service. Hiring experts will add expense but it will ensure that you get it right the first time.

Acoustic consultants may also help find acoustical problems that you may have missed when taking inventory of the rooms. Acoustics in museums can be confusing and complicated – by making informed decisions, you’ll be much happier with the results.