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Listening to Exhibits Perception of Acoustic Space
John M. Hull, a British theologian, wrote about sound in a memoir about the three years during which he became totally blind. He was interested in the "special nature of the acoustic world," and his insights may be useful in understanding the sound environment in museums especially, how sound helps us orient ourselves and find our way. Following are excerpts from his 1990 book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness.

Sounds define acoustic space
After describing a day in a park, and the many sounds he has heard, Hull comments:

"The strange thing about it, however, is that it was a world of nothing but action. Every sound was a point of activity. Where nothing was happening, there was silence. That little part of the world then died, disappeared. The ducks were silent. Had they gone, or was something holding their rapt attention? The boat came to rest. Were people leaning on the oars, or had they tied it to the edge and gone away? Nobody was walking past me just now. This meant that the footpath itself had disappeared." (p. 81) .

Sounds come to us....
Hull notes: "I cannot stop these stimulations flooding me. I just sit here. The creatures emitting the noise have to engage in some activity. They have to scrape, bang, hit, club, strike surface upon surface, impact, make their vocal chords vibrate. They must take the initiative in announcing their presence to me. For my part, I have no power to explore them." (p . 83)

...and it's hard to shut them out

Turning his head doesn't make the same kind of difference, in hearing, that it does in seeing: "The view looking that way is quite different from the view looking this way. It is not like that with sound. New noises do not come to my attention as I turn my head around. I may allow my head to hang limply down upon my chest; I may lean right back and face the sky. It makes little difference. Perhaps there is some slight shading of quality, but this acoustic world is mainly independent of my movement... This is a world which I cannot shut out, which goes on all around me, and which gets on with its own life." (pp. 83-84)

Open spaces are confusing
Stairways, elevators, and escalators are relatively predictable structures. "What the blind find difficult are smooth, open spaces. It is just these areas which are assumed by many sighted people to be best for the blind, because there is no danger of tripping. From the blind point of view, however, a flat, open surface is not negotiable because there are no orienting signals. There is no structure. It is not predictable, because it may end at any moment, and there is no way of telling where you are., once you are on it. The problem for the blind person is not falling over, but knowing where he is."

Quotations are from Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, by John M. Hull. (New York: Pantheon Books 1990).

SoundprintTapes of John Hull interviews from National Public Radio are available from Soundprint.
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