The Peabody Essex Museum recently reinstalled (opened fall 2019) Asian Export Art collection explores cross-cultural exchange and trade activity between Asia and the rest of the world. The gallery features more than 200 works of art made in diverse media by artists in China, Japan and South Asia. These transcultural objects demonstrate the beauty and ingenuity that can be created through blending artistic traditions, materials and technologies. One of the main themes of the galleries is obsession…or what would you do to get what you want.
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. Rather than bringing back a postcard, print, or painting, he commissioned this amazing room of wallpaper. For the first time, PEM is displaying the complete 19-panel room of wallpaper in the new wing as part of PEM’s Asian Export Art collection.
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.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. 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.
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.
Through sounds such as bagpipes, the din of international merchants conducting business and a patter of Scottish rain, the room envelops visitors and allows them to momentarily share Drummond’s feelings of longing and remembrance. As a finishing touch in making the space feel real, we warmed it up a bit with a life-size crackling digital fireplace. This has become one of the most popular places in the museum to sit, among both staff and visitors alike.
We dug deep into the details to evoke as much of a real space as possible. For example, the abstracted fireplace mantel was inspired by the Robert Adams-esque finishes that are found in Strathallan Castle. Moreover, the curatorial team contemplated and researched whether Drummond would have burned peat or wood in his fireplace and as it turns out he was clearly wealthy enough to burn wood in his castle. Rather than just searching Google for a yule log fireplace scene, Chip Van Dyke, Manager of Media Production, set up the shot in his mother-in-law’s Hamilton home and filmed several hours of fireplace footage with varying levels of intensity. The team then chose the fireplace that suited the room best. The lights don’t generate significant heat, but I swear you feel the temperature rise by 3 to 4 degrees when you sit in front of the fireplace and the flickering light dapples on your shoes.
This unique sound experience encourages visitors to lean in and listen to the details found in the wallpaper such as flapping flags, water softly lapping against docked boats and the sounds of a busy port. We even recorded conversations in Cantonese, Portuguese, Malay, Gujarati and Swedish — five of the myriad languages that were spoken to conduct business. For example, as you lean in to examine the depiction of the only two Westerners on the wallpaper, you hear them conversing in Swedish and as you approach a minaret depicted only a few steps away, you hear a call to prayer. There are some other really fun easter eggs hidden in the soundscape, but you will have to come find them yourself.
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. 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.
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.
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.
The video listed below will give you some sense of this journey through Drummond’s mind. If you are ever in the area, I would be happy to give you a personal tour and perhaps the experience will stir nostalgic memories of moments in your own life.
Some software/hardware details:
- 24 channel speaker system with a combination of high quality Meyer Sound speakers with Panphonics sound isolation speakers (subwoofer embedded in a wall)
- DMX lighting system provides object theater-like experience
- Text projected on wall to provide narrative details and make experience accessible.
- Max/MSP software
- 65 inch OLED television with video of fireplace