Four Arab horsemen are trying to outrun a desert sandstorm in an oil painting that hangs in the main gallery of Norwich University’s Sullivan Museum and History Center. The man in the foreground holds a rifle and bayonet, the wind curling his robes up around his face, à la Lawrence of Arabia. His horse’s mane whips into tangles; the animal’s eyes are red around the edges. The sky is the color of sand. Even the paint on the canvas looks sunburned.
The description beside the painting — which is part of the museum’s permanent collection — offers the usual stats: It’s by French painter Paul Philippoteaux, who is best known for his cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg; Norwich acquired the untitled painting in the 1990s to honor students and alumni involved in Operation Desert Storm.
But because it’s part of the museum’s new exhibit “Touch the Sound,” the description also urges the viewer to imagine the scene’s soundtrack: With words alone, it suggests, “The flapping of fabric in the wind. The beating of horse’s hooves. The creaking of saddles. The slapping of stirrups. The shifting sands of the desert.”
It’s surprisingly effective. How often do we stop to imagine the sound of a painting? In an exhibit full of sound recordings — snippets from the university’s radio station, WNUB, recordings of a field phonograph — the completely silent painting and accompanying text turns out to be the most evocative display.
Each academic department contributed a display to “Touch the Sound,” and the result is a somewhat disjointed, virtual soundscape of the university. Art students painted vinyl records demonstrating visual rhythm. Engineering students built a flute and electrified a violin and dulcimer, all three of which visitors can play.
The exhibit offers factoids you probably learned in middle school but have long forgotten. For example, what we hear is the result of the vibrations of three bones in our middle ear — the malleus, the stapes and the incus. And remember that adage about the tree falling in the forest? The biology department reminds visitors: The tree always makes a sound, even if no one is there to hear it. So stop asking already.
Between the student displays are objects the museum selected from its permanent collection, such as a late-19th-century reed organ, from Brattleboro’s world-renowned Estey Organ Company. Julius Estey, whose father founded the company, attended Norwich for two years before dropping out to help out with the booming family business. A button on the wall allows visitors to hear the organ play.
Beside the Estey display is a tribute to the music of the 1960s civil rights movement. During that time, Justine Tyrell Smadbeck Priestly, the wife of retired Norwich coach and athletic director Bob Priestly, was a columnist and reporter for Harlem’s New York Amsterdam News. The only white reporter in an entirely African American newsroom, she wrote under the pseudonym Gertrude Wilson.
In her book Dispatches of the 1960s From a White Writer in a Black World, Priestly writes, “For a good part of twelve years I caught that cab from Park Avenue up to Harlem. I went into the black world, dragging my white world along with me, trying in every way I knew to get there from here.”
Two books from Priestly’s personal collection are on display: One signed by Martin Luther King Jr., the other by Coretta Scott King. In King’s Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote, “To our dear friends Justine and Louis Smadbeck, in appreciation for your broad support of our humble efforts, and your unwavering devotion to the cause of freedom and justice — Martin.” In Scott King’s book, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., the author inscribed, “With the hope that a society of justice and brotherhood may yet prevail.”
Visitors can press a button next to the books and hear a congregation singing “This Little Light of Mine” or listen to a rousing sermon about freedom.
The display could be quite moving, if it weren’t for the distracting video — an advertisement for Norwich University — playing on a loop against the museum’s back wall, its soundtrack, Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” fading in and out, over and over again. A closer look reveals that it, too, is part of the exhibit. Students in the school of business and management, who made the commercial, implore visitors to imagine the ad without sound. “Would you be excited about attending Norwich University?” Without the monster ballad, it would certainly be a tougher sell.
This is part of a larger “video station” that works its magic on one family visiting the exhibit on a recent afternoon. They select a video of Norwich students participating in the annual Dog River Run, which makes military training look like an incredible game of Manhunt. The camo-clad students do push-ups in the river, run through mud and throw their arms around one another to pounding, tough-guy rock music.
Without intending to, the exhibit makes an interesting connection between music and the military. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once said, “Without music, there would be no army.” Lee’s quotation accompanies a Civil War-era fiddle on loan from the barber at the university’s Snip & Clip Barber Shop, who is an avid fiddler and bandleader. The instrument, made in 1861 in St. Johnsbury, is missing strings. Its bow is frayed and the wood looks weathered. The display description claims Abraham Lincoln’s name is printed in the interior chamber, though you can’t see it to verify.
These days, American soldiers prepare combat-ready playlists on their iPods.
Younger visitors to “Touch the Sound” will likely gravitate to the interactive “Sound Bite Boxes,” which emit various annoying sounds, including three different fart noises, at the press of a button. But the more patient viewer will uncover a handful of historical gems, while paying a bit more attention to the real and imagined sounds around them.