Museums have traditionally been spaces of contemplation, refuges from the outside world where visitors can bask in front of masterpieces in quiet serenity.
Well, that's if you don't live in New York City.
In the Big Apple, even art museums can be crushed with crowds and airport security-style lines. These are massive buildings with some of the best collections of art in the world—it's natural. The Metropolitan Museum’s attendance stood at a near-record 6.16 million people in 2014; the Museum of Modern Art’s was more than 3 million, and if recent visits to the packed new Whitney are any indication, it will blow the old Breuer building’s attendance out of the water.
But what does that mean for the experience of actually viewing art? And how to quantify a fundamentally ineffable experience? You can’t measure sight lines or the sensation of being jostled or hemmed in. What you can measure, however, is sound.
Specifically, you can measure decibels. Decibels—logarithmic units commonly used to describe loudness—are 1/10 of a bel, a ratio which to most people would sound like a 2:1 difference, says Alan Fierstein, the founder of Acoustilog, an acoustical consulting firm in New York. “If the sound was 60 decibels and it went to 70, most people would say it sounded twice as loud,” he explains.
For context, Fierstein says that a person speaking normally from three feet away reads at around 65 decibels; if a person spoke loudly from the same distance, it would read about 75 decibels, and if they screamed, it would read at 95 decibels.
Using a 99¢ decibel reader for the iPhone (less exact than a professional decibel reader, though approximate enough to give an idea of relative noise), we took readings from the top museums in the city (and the august and deadly quiet Frick Museum, too, as a control).
Our methodology involved taking three, 10-second readings from different parts of each museum—one reading from the atrium, one from the center of a popular section or exhibit, and one random reading from an out-of-the-way gallery. Given that each museum was filled with people, a reading one day will invariably be different from the next. Rather than claim a level of comprehensiveness, then, this exercise attempted to mimic the experience of a single visitor at each museum who happened to be in these different environments at midday on a weekday.
And now, the results. Ranked loudest to softest:
1. The MoMA (3 million visitors in 2014)
Latin American Art: 69.1
Painting & Sculpture Gallery II: 67.2
2. The Whitney Museum of American Art (new, no attendance numbers)
5th floor: 71.6
8th floor: 70.7
3. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1 million visitors in 2014)
Top of ramp: 77.3
Top floor of Doris Salcedo retrospective: 56.7
4. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (6.16 million visitors in 2013-14)
Sargent exhibit: 61.6
Koç Family Galleries: 52.8
5. Frick (around 300,000 visitors in 2014)
Leighton’s Flaming June exhibit: 60.4
Living Hall: 54.3
Roughly speaking, these numbers make sense, Fierstein says. “The Whitney constantly has helicopters outside—you won’t necessarily hear them, but that noise will come through the glass,” he says. “You can’t hear specifics—‘Oh, that’s a helicopter, that’s a 737, that’s a truck,’ because by the time it makes it to your ears, it’s mixed up and just sounds like an overall din.”
Similarly, the MoMA is in the center of midtown Manhattan; the Met, Guggenheim, and Frick, in contrast, are located on the comparatively quiet Upper East Side.
Is there a way to mitigate the noise? Besides changing noise coming from mechanical systems or the soundproofing of the windows, Fierstein says no. “You could always just put up a sign that says quiet, please,” he says.
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