Connected \\ November 8, 2019
If These Walls Could Speak
What is the best souvenir you’ve ever purchased during your travels? Is it a small memento from a family vacation or maybe a work of art that reminds you of a special place or time in your life?
When James Drummond left Guangzhou, China, in 1807 after two decades of working for the British East India Company, he commissioned an entire room of wallpaper for his home, Strathallan Castle in Perthshire, Scotland. For the first time, PEM is displaying the complete 19-panel room of wallpaper in the Sean M. Healey Family Gallery on the second floor of the new wing as part of PEM's Asian Export Art collection.
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.
While planning the installation of this amazing object, the Asian Export Art team wanted to create the antithesis of a typical quiet and staid historic house experience. The goal was to tell this story in a new way and provide a moving, surprising and delightful moment for visitors.
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.
We hoped to bring the room to life and put people inside Drummond’s head to experience the wallpaper as he did when it was first installed in Scotland.
The team partnered with the nationally renowned sound designer Earprint Immersive to build a first-of-its-kind 24-channel sound system.
Jason Reinier of Earprint Immersive fine tuning the sound system. Photo by Jim Olson.
We also worked with local firms Available Light and 4Wall Entertainment on lighting solutions and technology integration. We installed a DMX or computer controlled lighting system, which are commonly used to control stage lighting and effects in theater productions. The lights highlight various sections of the wallpaper, while the directional sound unfolds the narrative and draws visitors’ attention to detailed scenes depicted on it.
Wire management of the 24 channel speaker system. Photo by Jim Olson.
The result is an immersive 100-second theater-like experience that transports visitors back and forth from China to Scotland as they imagine Drummond reminiscing about his time working in and around the thriving factories. The speakers are installed around the perimeter of the room creating a directional and location specific curtain of sound, so you hear an overall blend of sounds from the center of the room, but specific details as you move around and explore.
Here is a sample excerpt that replicates the sounds heard in the gallery.
Detail of two Westerners in conversation. ©2010 Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Walter Silver.
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola
In designing the sound experience, we went to great lengths to source authentic sounds that would evoke the physical space of Strathallan Castle and Drummond’s memories of Guangzhou, which at the time was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. PEM commissioned bagpiper and Salem resident Nate Silva to research and perform the tunes played in the space and purchased a B-flat bagpipe chanter to get the right tuning and pitch for the time period.
Technical drawing of the space outlining speaker and data lines with bagpipes! Photo by Jim Olson.
Who knew that 19th century bagpipes were a lower frequency than contemporary pipes...well actually, Nate did! Finally, we recorded the bagpipe in the actual gallery, asking him to march around the space to give it an even more realistic sound during playback in that same room.
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.
We also commissioned Brookline resident Tao He to play the erhu, an extremely expressive traditional Chinese stringed instrument that evokes the sounds of nature and feelings of longing and reflection. Recorded in PEM’s Yin Yu Tang Chinese house, we asked her to perform songs that a street musician might play in the early 19th century and the tunes she chose sound absolutely perfect in the space.
Tao He playing the erhu in our new garden. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.
The result is a room that seeks to create a memorable, empathy inducing and thought-provoking moment that elevates the experience of viewing the wallpaper. As the sounds grab visitors’ attention and transport them to a different time and place, the subtle theatrical lighting effects guide their eyes around the wallpaper to reveal a narrative about longing and reflection on the past.