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  Tom Nielsen with the Microsonics exhibit

Tom Nielsen with the Microsonics exhibit
Photo courtesy Children's Discovery Museum

By Tom Nielsen

Tom Nielsen is an exhibit developer at the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose, California. What is it about sound, he asks, that can delight us and stir our imaginations?

This exhibit called Microsonics is part of Alice's Wonderland: A Most Curious Adventure, a traveling exhibition loosely based on Lewis Carroll's classic children's book, which opened at the Children's Discovery Museum, San Jose, in February 2002.

The exhibit is simply a tabletop wired with a few contact microphones to amplify the sounds of some rather ordinary objects fastened to it: a hairbrush, a comb, a zipper, a string of beads. A circular oscillograph display appears in a "magic mirror," adding interesting visual feedback.

Although only loosely connected to the Alice story line, Microsonics was inspired in a very direct way by the closing lines of the book:

...and still as she listened, or seemed to listen, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister's dream. The long grass rustled at her feet as the White Rabbit hurried by—the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighboring pool—she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal, and the shrill voice of the Queen ordering off her unfortunate guests to execution—once more the pig-baby was sneezing on the Duchess's knee, while plates and dishes crashed around it—once more the shriek of the Gryphon, the squeaking of the Lizard's slate-pencil, and the choking of the suppressed guinea-pigs, filled the air, mixed up with the distant sobs of the miserable Mock Turtle. So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.

While we were prototyping Microsonics, a visitor left a note in the suggestion box saying only "I love the sound thing."

Listening to the sounds that objects make is something I have done since childhood. But I am cautious about extrapolating, from what intrigues me myself, to what might interest the range of visitors to a children's museum. To my delight, many of them seem to "love the sound thing." In particular, parents seem to enjoy very much sharing it with their children, an outcome highly valued in our work here. What I would like to understand better is why sound can so powerfully imbue our imaginations.

Children's Discovery Museum Children's Discovery Museum
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