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Audio Tour Blues

2010 November 24
by Sheila

During a recent visit to Memphis, I took two very different audio tours and was reminded why I generally dislike those things: few choices to explore objects and isolation.

My expectations for iPod Touch/iPhone tours and experiences these days may be out of whack with the rest of the world, but I do expect something different from an audio tour when handed a device and the guide is billed as “brand new.”

Audio Guide for Picturing America

iPhone capture of the Touch tour

At the Brooks Museum of Art, we were handed iPod Touches to test out their new tour to accompany Picturing America, a combination of three temporary exhibits featuring photographs of William Christenberry and Robert King, and engravings by Winslow Homer. I was really excited, because I loved exhibition theme and these artists. I did not feel this excitement using the app, which disappointed me. The app’s landing page contained navigation to the audio, a page dedicated to its sponsors, visitor information about the museum, and a separate page on membership. With an emphasis on visitor information and membership discounts, I would expect the app to be dowloadable for use outside the museum, but it is not.

The audio tour: It offered narrations for a small selection of works from each exhibition that were listed in numerical order by artist. None of the images/audio were tagged or grouped by themes to link the artists or to demonstrate the reasoning behind exhibiting these shows together. There was no way to share any of these interesting objects with myself or others to look at or listen to later. The audio started with a curatorial narration and frankly I tuned out. I hoped to hear more from the two living artists, or at least be told in a summary if I would hear from the artist within the two-minute clip.

Similarly the tour of Elvis’s Graceland mansion and grounds is a traditional audio tour. There is little space within the house for labels and on-site interpretation (especially with the holiday decorations installed). I first visited Graceland 15 years ago and they had an audio tour back then, so I’m guessing they believe the format works for the crowds and the space. (Can you believe they got rid of Priscilla’s voice over?) For me, the audio tour format works better in a space like a historic house but there is no way to ask questions, such as who were the “professional interior designers” who designed the TV room and did they actually put those sketches in their portfolio? I kid, but with these types of guides it is hard to find other information that might be interesting to you.

And with everyone listening to the tour with headsets, the experience of visiting a place like Graceland–which is hallowed ground to some and a fascinating cultural journey for others–can be isolating. Discussing interesting finds with your companions can be difficult, meanwhile you hear loud shouts from others who would rather not take off their headsets when talking to their friends who are also wearing theirs.

Scapes app is avail for download from iTunes.

Even as I felt disappointed by these experiences, there are some innovative audio experiences out there such as Scapes available at the deCordova Sculpture Park designed by musical artist Halsey Burgund. Halsey and some friends built Roundware, which is open source software for creating smartphone apps that are location-aware audio experiences that records and plays audio that can be served to visitors in non-linear ways. Scapes and some of his other works are built on Roundware.

While I still get the audio tour blues, the increased diffusion of mobile devices is leading museums and culture organization to experiment with apps and the mobile web for serving visitors a broader range of content and providing means for accepting questions, comments, and sharing. To find some of those projects, go to the Museum Mobile wiki to log your new projects and keep track of others.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. November 29, 2010

    The audio tour at Graceland has always stood out to me as one of the few that I have done in my long career of museum visits. I’ve always avoided them, either because I couldn’t afford to pay for the privilege of the fancy audioguide, or because I just didn’t want to be told what to look at.

    But Graceland stands out, perhaps because the audiotour is not as optional as at other locales – or at least when I went (granted 15 years ago now) – everyone through the door was handed their headphones. It made for a strangely isolated (alone with Priscilla’s voice) yet communal (everyone had their headphones on, listening to the same thing) experience.

    I would argue that the best audio/mobile guides should play up this duality, but to much greater advantage – encouraging, rather than discouraging, conversation (among physical visitors, virtual visitors, curators, etc.) yet simultaneously allowing for introspection.

    Now, how to do that. . .

    • Sheila permalink*
      November 29, 2010

      You do make a good point that at Graceland, there is a sense of communal discovery since everyone is listening at approximately the same time that is very different from other tours where you could be in one gallery and people are listening to different stops in the same space.

      I agree that encouraging conversation and interaction with the space and with others (present or not) are important pieces of good mobile experiences. There is a video demonstrating the Scapes experience that starts to get at that potential. You might find it interesting.

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