Last week, an innovative, student-centered exhibition “Soundscapes of Childhood” opened in the University’s Hatcher Graduate Library. This cutting edge art installation combines spoken word narrative and environmental sounds to explore how nature influences students’ personal experiences of childhood and home. This fascinating project is the final product of a Residential College English class taught by Prof. Liz Goodenough. Goodenough, in collaboration with cultural geographer Anja Hälg Bieri, worked with students to develop these novel soundscapes.

Soundscapes of Childhood

Friday 8 a.m. to 11:45 p.m.
Arthur Miller Theater

“It was a course that used authors that wrote for children of the Great Lakes who celebrated the Mitten and the lakes around it,” Goodenough said. “Their books explore how their location shaped their behavior, their character and their play histories. So we asked, did it matter that they had a white pine in their front yard? Did it matter that they lived by a river? Did it matter that they lived in the middle of Chicago? These are the types of questions that helped the students formulate their life stories.”

These personal narratives were developed throughout the semester, both inside the classroom and on trips to nearby Nichols Arboretum.

“Throughout the semester they were always writing on their impressions, their readings and their autobiographies,” Bieri said. “It was a constant process so that the writing was one creation and the other creation was the soundscape and the sound work. It’s really an interdisciplinary approach that fosters the creative process of the students’ work. They had to understand the software and then be able to compose and revise both their writing and their sound and then give each other feedback.”

At the end of the semester, in a reader’s theatre, the students stood up in front of the class and presented their soundscapes. It was months later, with the help of Children’s Literature Learning Librarian Jo Angela Oehrli, that these final products were chosen for display to a much wider audience in Room 100 of the Graduate Library.

“We talked to (Oehrli), and she approached me and wanted to do this,” Goodenough said. “It is a museum quality exhibit with innovative sound domes, which I had never seen before. You stand under it and you don’t hear what’s outside and when you’re not under it you don’t hear what’s inside the dome. You get this kind of three dimensional experience which is amazing.”

The soundscapes are meant for both the campus populations and the entire city of Ann Arbor since they are available for download from the Internet.

“You can download them and go to the Arboretum where the walks were inspired,” Bieri said. “We have a path, not a path exactly from A to Z, but more a certain area which you can see on the map in the exhibit. We hope that people who go to the exhibit will want to go outside too. We noticed when we listened to the soundscapes in class that they had a certain quality, but when you go outside and hear them as you walk it adds a whole different dimension.”

In the future, these soundscapes may even be used to encourage families staying at the Ronald McDonald House to go outside.

“I met with Robert Grese, the Director of Nichols Arboretum, and Julie Piazza who is the child life internship and training coordinator at Mott Children’s Hospital,” Goodenough said. “They want to use the exhibit, so in January, it’s going to migrate in some kind of enhanced form. One of the missions of Nichols Arboretum is to get the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House, who have traveled many miles and are under a lot of stress, to actually go to the Arb.”

The soundscapes themselves encourage every listener to utilize their senses and appreciate the nature around them.

“Every soundscape has its own message,” Bieri said. “They’re less straightforward documentary so you can really take away what you’d like, but the meta-message is one that is based in the philosophy of aesthetic education. The one who makes the soundwalk, but also the one who takes it uses a mixture of their senses and their intellect and their imagination to understand.

“We really hope to trigger new questions of how to look at the world, how to look at nature and culture. Nature is in part formed by our culture. Our understanding of nature and what it looks like, our autobiography of it. The nature we carry in our heads.”

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