Rockheim -- how not to have an experience

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit "Rockheim" -- a museum of sorts, although I am told that it is more an "experience" than a museum.  In fact it is neither.  Just some mediocre waste of space and opportunity.  A manifestation of what happens when airy ideas take concrete form through the inept and unimaginative.  Before going there I had joked that "is rock really so dead we need to visit a museum to see it?".  After visiting the place I am not sure what to make of it.  It is not a museum.  And it is not an experience.  Not an experience you should spend money on anyway.  If you want an experience I would recommend a combination of wikipedia and going to a concert.  Both offer far more depth both in insight and emotion.

Apparently they had the idea that the "experience" should be interactive.  However, they completely missed the mark.  The interactivity on offer was for the most part various ways to trigger pre-recorded content.  In particularly flakey and annoying ways.

There were in two exhibits in particular that made me hoppingly mad.  One was a collection of various organs, electrical pianos, and synthesizers. Rather than giving the audience a chance to interact with these, they were behind plexiglass.  Like extinct specimens of rare species.  There was no interaction, no way to understand these devices, no way to understand why, for instance the ARP 2600 ended up being such a coveted instrument despite its limitations.  Sure, they are valuable items, but what value do they have if you cannot relate to them?  If you let people play with them, occasionally they will break -- but at least you will have given people something of value.

A brief, superficial video that goes into no useful detail is a poor substitute for, say, a knowledgeable guide who can play the instrument, show how it is used, take questions and perhaps let the audience interact with the instrument directly (though with some supervision for the rarer instruments).

The other exhibit was an old-fashioned mixing desk.  One of those huge studio desks with lots of automation and mixer strips that were packed with functionality.  I spent perhaps 20 minutes studying the various knobs and buttons -- trying to understand how the thing was designed and how it was meant to be operated.  I desperately wanted to try out some things.  To understand how this dinosaur could be brought to life.

I suppose they thought they were clever when they wired the channel faders to control the size of windows displayed on a wall.  The rest of the knobs and buttons did absolutely nothing.  Taking what used to be a fairly sophisticated piece of equipment and turning it into a stupid, primitive, pointless controller of a terribly dull display.  A display, mind you, that served no purpose since people would be more interested in constantly fiddling with the faders so it was completely impossible to actually absorb any of the content.  Not surprisingly.  People want to interact, but the only interaction on offer was insultingly stupid.

The information on offer I would rather consume on my computer.  Without kids constantly screwing with the window size of my browser.  But the mixing desk:  that was the real opportunity to give the audience something of value.  An experience.

Think of what they could have done instead.  They could have wired the desk up to sound sources. For not much money at all they could have wired it up to a computer with a 16 channel sound card and created some interface to allow the audience to play back multitrack recordings through the mixer.  (Or they could have gone even further and fired up that 24 channel (or so) Studer tape machine they had there).  Allowing people to actually learn something.  To learn how music used to be produced, how sounds are layered, how you can manipulate spatial placement, intensity, dynamics, and frequency content of a sound.  Let people understand that there is an art to turning individual performances into a greater whole.  Let people connect with what they can only hear on recordings and develop some intuitive idea of how it is done.

To top it off they had a tacky gift shop full of the sort of garbage nobody needs or wants.

I left frustrated and a bit angry.  As I always do when I see opportunities being wasted so carelessly.

If you want to interact with music I suggest you visit a instrument shop that sells guitars, drums, keyboards etc.  At the least they will let you interact, touch, and explore.  They can tell you about the instruments and the machines and they will often be more than happy to demonstrate and explain.
I suggest you go to a local concert, where you can stand close to the stage and see the band and feel the music physically assaulting your senses.
I suggest you buy a book that gives you more than the powerpoint bullets and some snippets of disconnected information.

Rockheim is possibly the worst waste of time I've been unfortunate enough to spend money on in a long time.

UPDATE: Magne from Rockheim took the trouble of responding to my blog posting.  Unfortunately there was some problem with blogger that prevented him from posting the comment to the blog, so I decided to add it to the bottom of the blog posting instead since his response was well thought out and insightful.  I'm a bit busy right now, so I'll comment on it when I can switch contexts and devote some quality time to it.  (There are a couple of other blog posts in the pipeline that need to be finished first).


Magne Gisvold, web editor of Rockheim writing.

Thank you for a thorough critique of Rockheim. We think that the effort and sincerity deserves a reply from us.

First of all: We do agree with many of your points.

For instance, we agree that the ideal situation would be to have all kinds of instruments available for exploration by our visitors. Also, to make a studio mixer accessible for the general audience, in order to experience real music production is an excellent idea. The same goes for making "real" interactive content that allows the user to freely navigate through content, further immersed in the subject matter.

None of these ideas are foreign to us, of course. All of these have been considered, and been reluctantly binned. Why? Well, the obvious: The resources (money and time) have been strictly limited.

To give an example: In our hiphop-room we have had a classic dj flight available for anyone to use. During the month and a half since we opened, we have got 20-some broken records, and have spent several thousand kroners on styluses.

To think that giving anyone and everyone access to any other kind of instrument is much less expensive per item, is erroneus.

Also, we'd need twice the manpower in the guide departement to supervise and facilitate such an experience for our visitors.

Hence, the solution is obvious (you said it yourself): Having proficient people using instruments in front of museum goers. This is, and has been, on our to do list (yet on the overlapping list of many things we have not yet initiated or implemented; we are currently using every man-hour on being able to cope with the massive flow of people wanting to experience Rockheim; we are a very young organisation, climbing a steady, steep yet exhausting learning slope).

That aside, you're actually missing the target somewhat:

Because our main mission is not that of Teknisk Museum (to show how technology works) - or that of Ringve Museum (to conserve and display musical instruments), but to collect, conserve and convey Norwegian pop and rock MUSIC. (And of course to contextualize said music among other cultural expressions and artefacts of our society.)

Hence your critique is somewhat an error of category, as your assessment of Rockheim should be contrasted to other (public) conservating bodies (museums, archives, libraries), and the critical issue at hand is: Do we conserve and convey the history of pop and rock thoroughly and deeply? (I.e., that you cannot assess Rockheim meaningfully in contrast to, say, a rock concert, a music studio, or a somewhat fuzzy notion of what a "good experience" is.)

Now. We don't want to get entangeled in polemics here. And as stated, we agree with you to a certain point when it comes to envisioning an "ultimate" experience. We welcome your constructive feedback - and look forward to years and years of trying, learning, and trying again (within the typical economical confines of the typical public museum).

Remember: age-wise, we are just teething ;)
- - - - -

mvh Magne G.

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