The Museum’s Architecture: an iPhone 4S

Why would a 21st century museum choose NOT to make their collection of digital audio recordings available online?

A white woman's hand holds the MOPS iPhone 4S. Its desktop screen contains the museum's original logo as well as an image of a waveform which is actually a recording of our Director saying the words "Museum of Portable Sound". The hand and mobile are superimposed over a blueprint image containing multiple drawings of an iPhone 4S. Various statements in an architect's handwriting appear scattered across the blueprint saying things like "Planned obsolescence may conflict with museum's long-term strategic plan".

The sounds in our museum are displayed in the Music app of a single iPhone 4S. All our visitors, in person or online, listen to our museum using this – and only this – mobile phone.

A composite of three photos. From left to right: a group of six students from University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey use a headphone splitter to listen to the MOPS Mobile during a visit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; MOPS Director John Kannenberg, on a Zoom call, holds up the MOPS Mobile during a post-Covid-19 online visit; a woman sitting alone in the café at the Young V&A (formerly the V&A Museum of Childhood) in London.
Whether in groups, individually, in person or via video chat, Museum of Portable Sound visitors all listen to our Permanent Collection Galleries on our museum’s original iPhone 4S – still functional (even the original battery!) after more than six years of use.

Why only one iPhone 4S? Why not an app? Why not online?!?

Google Chrome’s official error message for not being online equates the experience with being a dinosaur. Is that what we are?

Why in the world would a 21st century museum whose objects are digital sound recordings choose to not make their collections available for listening online? Isn’t online access what makes museums relevant in the digital age? We would argue the exact opposite – because our museum is not just about sounds, but about listening and about encouraging attentive, thoughtful, and deep listening.

When our Director chose to open the Museum of Portable Sound (MOPS), he had already spent nearly 15 years distributing audio files online via his own record label. This experience led him to question whether it was possible for digital audio recordings to feel precious or ‘museum-worthy’ in a post-Napster, post-Spotify world.

Can digital audio files ever feel “museum-worthy” in a post-Napster world?

As the basis for a PhD research project, MOPS explored another question: would a museum audience listen attentively to difficult material – recordings that are arguably mostly non-musical audio – for anywhere near the amount of time akin to visits at a more typical, visual museum?

By demanding that our visitors make an appointment – with our museum and themselves – MOPS alerts its audience to prepare themselves to stay in one place, pay attention, and listen to a museum. It’s not an app that you use as background noise once then delete as soon as you need more space on your phone for photos.

Ok, you might be thinking, but why an iPhone 4S instead of an iPod, or even a Walkman?

That’s a great question, and we wish we had a more meaningful, conceptually valid reason for it; but the truth is, our Director had an American iPhone 4S that wasn’t able to be cracked to run on UK mobile networks sitting in a drawer gathering dust. We wish there was some deep, poetic reason for using it – but the truth of the matter is that we were skint, and it was there.


4 October 2011 (the day before Steve Jobs died)

14 October 2011

9 September 2013

What Does the ‘S’ Stand For?
Siri, which debuted at the same time

Connection Port:
The final iPhone with Apple’s proprietary 30-pin dock connector

Headphone Port:
Stereo Minijack

Any Lawsuits?
Yes! A class action lawsuit was filed on 22 December 2015 alleging Apple deliberately crippled the iPhone 4S with an iOS update. It appears to be still unresolved.

Why did we use an iPhone 4S? Because it was there.

There are many benefits to using this mobile. iPhones use an interface that most of people who visit the museum already know, so we don’t have to teach them how to use it (unlike a lot of museum audio guides, which often use quirky, proprietary equipment). Significantly, even in an early form [ed. note: iOS 7.1.2 to be exact] iOS has excellent built-in accessibility tools for use by blind or visually impaired visitors. Since it’s a phone and not just an audio player, the MOPS Mobile references our interest in the world of portable sound beyond music, such as telephony. Plus, it doesn’t just house the museum’s Permanent Collection of Sounds – it’s also an object within the museum’s Physical Objects Collection! That’s pretty mind-blowing.

How Does a Mobile Phone Become Museum Architecture?

Icon for the default Music app in iOS 7
From information architecture to museum architecture: the iOS 7 Music app.

Instead of designing a proprietary app for displaying the digital audio files in the MOPS Permanent Collection Galleries, the sounds are simply loaded into the standard Music app in iOS 7.1.2. If we think of the MOPS Mobile as the museum’s “building”, then Albums in the Music app are the museum’s “galleries”, and the Tracks inside each Album are the museum’s “objects”.

Since MOPS was designed with four “floors”, each housing a general topic (which you can see in detail on our Map), this posed a design challenge. How could each floor be indicated within an app that only displays albums, tracks, and playlists? The solution? Colour-coded album art.

Sorting the contents of the Music app by Album produces a list of every album in numerical – in this case, gallery – order. Since each floor’s album art is a different colour, the distinction between floors is communicated instantly. The colour-coding carries over into the Map as well as the printed Gallery Guide book used during in-person visits and the Online Visitors Guide PDF used by our online visitors.

If the MOPS Mobile represents our museum’s “building”, then Albums stored in the phone’s Music app are the museum’s “galleries”, with the tracks inside each album the museum’s “objects”. The four colours of the Album Art represent the four “floors” on the MOPS Map: the four main subject areas under which our sounds are categorised.
An advertisement. At the top, a headline proclaims "I contain multitudes".

Below the headline is an image of the MOPS Mobile phone with the galleries of the Permanent Collection map floating above the phone's screen. 

Below this illustration, a subhead says the names of the four floors of the MOPS Map: "Natural History. Science & Technology. Architecture & Urban Design. Art & Culture."

Below this, a further subhead states: "Each of our floors covers a topic that usually fills a whole museum. It's the whole world of sound – under one roof."
2020 advert produced by the MOPS Marketing Department

This design system may seem overly simplistic, but in practice it makes orienting visitors a quick and painless process that takes less than a minute. In no time, visitors are able to find their way around the museum even more easily than a traditional physical museum. The iPhone Music app’s information architecture overlaid with the conceptual architecture of an imaginary museum building makes the experience of listening to audio recordings analogous to looking at paintings, sculptures, or artefacts in a physical museum. These two previously unrelated experiences unite, transporting MOPS visitors to a museum without walls – a museum to be listened to.

Photoshopping the Phone

One way we have used our museum’s unique architecture is by Photoshopping our iPhone 4S into many of our social media posts, playfully integrating the MOPS Mobile into both real-world and fictional events. The images in the gallery below are courtesy the Museum of Portable Sound Marketing Department.

The Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing

The logo for the MOPS Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing, incorporating the architect's signature; the logo for the MOP Exposition Space for temporary exhibitions, which is housed in the Gehry Commemorative Wing; and a photograph of the Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing which looks suspiciously similar to a crumpled up bit of aluminium foil
Dr Neil Verma sits at a café table wearing headphones, an empty plate which once held a slice of cake placed in front of him. In the foreground, the Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing can be seen; it suspiciously resembles a crumpled piece of aluminium foil.
Dr Neil Verma visiting the Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing

On 25 March 2018, MOPS officially opened the Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing, a new addition to our museum campus architecture acting as a permanent home for our temporary exhibitions, the Exposition Space. Dr Neil Verma, Assistant Professor of Sound Studies at Northwestern University, helped to inaugurate the new wing during a visit which took place over coffee and baked goods in the café at Curzon Cinema Soho, London.

The new wing has also gone on to become the home of our exclusive VIP Members Lounge and our Video Gallery.

“Let’s get one thing straight, bucko: I have never heard of any so-called ‘Museum of Portable Sound’ and I have never done any work for them.”

– World-Renowned Museum Starchitect Frank Gehry

The Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing is visible here alongside the MOPS mobile at its original location in London’s Fenleychurch Mews Court Square Rd, both buildings tucked just behind Queen Victoria’s Less Important Sister’s Bridge. The architect himself (who did not design it) was photographed by paparazzi glaring at the building disapprovingly on 29 Dec 2017.

Beginning on 30 March 2020, as a result of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, we began offering online visits to MOPS which have taken some of the spotlight away from our museum’s architecture. However, our online visitors do still get to see the MOPS Mobile in action. Also, during online tours of our temporary exhibitions, visitors have the option of receiving a personal guided tour of the Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing from our Director & Chief Curator.

As of this writing, no online visitor has ever taken us up on this offer.

The MOPS Director, with a serious look on his face, wearing a pair of headphones while on a video call. In his right hand he holds what appears to be a crumpled up piece of aluminium foil which keenly resembles the preceding photographs of the Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing.
The Frank Gehry Commemorative Wing is more impressive in person than it is over video chat.

Why not book your own Online Visit today?

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