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Hannah Hethmon on Podcasting in Museums

Hannah Hethmon is an expert on Podcasting for Museums, and the author of Your Museum Needs A Podcast. In October she’ll be speaking at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in Amsterdam and running a half day workshop to help participants to kickstart their own museum podcasts.

We caught up with her about her passion for Podcasts and how museums can best approach the medium.

Podcasting for Museums

How did you first become interested in podcasting in museums?

I actually stumbled into the potential of podcasting for museums. I’d just left my job at the American Association for State and Local History to do a Fulbright Fellowship in Iceland. At AASLH, I’d spent two years thinking about the museum field’s needs and how to use digital tools to communicate better with the association’s members (and then how to share that information with our members so they could communicate better with their audiences).

My main project in Iceland was an exploration of the unusually high number of museums and how they were responding to the tourism boom. I decided a podcast would be a great way to capture that moment in Iceland museum history, and I just dove into the medium without any prior experience or grasp of how big a task I was taking on.

As I taught myself how to podcast, I quickly realized that the real potential was not in the “information transfer via interview” model that I had planned to use, but in telling intimate stories about the museums themselves.

Over the course of a year of capturing these stories, editing them, and publishing them on Museums in Strange Places, I realized that my work was allowing individuals around the world to have the same intimate experience of a museum that I did, an experience that many people weren’t getting even if they visited the museums themselves.

I realized there was something about the simplicity of audio and the one-to-one intimacy of podcasts that had the potential to deeply engage listeners with the mission of a museum in a way I hadn’t seen before.

As museum people started emailing me to ask advice on starting shows at their institutions, I realized that the field was curious about this medium and sensed it had a lot to offer, but that most people didn’t know how to really effectively use podcasts. So, I wrote a book distilling everything I had learned into a quick guide and started speaking about podcasts at conferences and producing podcasts for museums and cultural nonprofits full-time.

Podcasting Heritage

What makes a great museum podcast?

STORIES! Or least some narrative. There are lots of good talk-show/interview shows out there that just have one host interviewing interesting guests. But I think most of the time that model just doesn’t work for museums.

As I like to say to museums all the time, “It’s not all about you.” Your show should be focused on a subject that your listeners want to hear, not a museum talking about itself.

Similarly, museums’ first instinct is often to create a show where each episode is about a different object. Not only has this been done too often, but it’s not a particularly enticing topic. Instead, focus on telling stories, and use your objects as tools and props in that story if helpful.

I think a great museum podcast focuses foremost on entertainment; is the listener engaged in the material? If you tell a great story and make it entertaining, you can share a lot of nuanced information in a memorable and digestible way.

Lastly, I think a great museum podcast requires its creators to be tuned in to larger trends in podcasting. We museum professionals tend to be a more academic group than our visitors, but we’re not always our visitors. It’s important to do your research to see what people are listening to and what they want to hear before you decide what to podcast about.

Who have you seen do great podcasts in the museum sector?

I’m really excited about what The Tenement Museum in New York City is doing with their show, How to Be American. It’s a really well-produced storytelling podcast that is right at home with the narrative non-fiction podcasts found at the top of the podcasting charts.

Distillations is the long-running podcast of the Science History Institute in Philadelphia that uses the popular deep dive journalistic format to make connections between the history of science and the present.

The SF MoMA’s Raw Material is fantastic and is a great model for museums on how to make shows that advance their mission even if they aren’t connected to the museum’s exhibits. The show is really creative and does a great job of immersing the listener in visual arts using only audio.

Over the last year, I’ve been working with The National Archives in London (where I’m based) on an experimental podcast project called On the Record, which is an attempt to tell powerful stories using only the expertise and material evidence found within The National Archives and bring a story-focused model to this aspect of their media (all on a tight budget). I’m pretty proud of our first mini-series on espionage and I’m taking a break from working on their second mini-series as I write this.

What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a podcast at their museum?

As I hinted at earlier, do you research! Browse popular podcasts and find out what’s happening in the podcast world outside of museums. Honestly, at this point, I would recommend looking at public radio shows and other popular narrative radio podcasts for inspiration. Museums are getting there, but you’ll find more to work with by researching outside the field.

Make sure you really think about what your goals are with a podcast. What kind of reaction do you want from your audience? Proper pre-planning and concept development will set you up for a much more successful show.

You also need to have a marketing plan. I’ve seen a lot of museums put a lot of time and effort into making great shows and then just pop them on their website as if they were another daily blog. You won’t get many listeners that way. Create a marketing plan that treats your podcast like a movie, not a blog post. Make sure to build buzz before the launch and have plans in place to get people talking about it and sharing it widely once it’s out.

Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself…

Don’t share facts; tell stories.

Hannah Hethmon will be speaking at the MuseumNext Digital Summit next month. She is also running a half day workshop for anyone interested in kickstarting their own museum podcast.

Find out more about Hannah’s work on her website.

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