They say an image can convey a thousand words. But what about the context behind that image? Here’s how audio tours are helping to deepen museum-goers’ appreciation of exhibits and installations.
Audio guides certainly aren’t new to the museum scene. In fact, the idea of providing pre-recorded commentary on exhibits has been used for as long as portable devices have been available, providing visitors with supplementary information and context.
Originally introduced in the form of cassette players – where listeners had to periodically flip the tape to gain all the necessary information – audio guides are now more compact, easy to use and customisable than ever. Whether it’s via an app on one’s phone or a dedicated mp3 device rented out by the museum for the length of a visit, it’s never been easier to tap into essential knowledge.
Audio guides are used by thousands of museum visitors every year but, with a new wave of innovative technologies making their way into museums, should we be asking whether audio is becoming old news? Does the advent of the smart phone and handheld device present an existential crisis for the humble audiotape.
Well, perhaps we have said goodbye to the tape format for good but certainly not the audio experience. Whether it be breaking down language barriers or helping people to learn without resorting to reading signs and information boards, audio guides are as popular as ever – perhaps even more so, given that we now live in the age of the podcast.
However, institutions are adding further value to the traditional audio guide to create enhanced audio or “creative audio guides”.
The rise of the creative audio guide
By using storytelling, creative audio guides give the listener a unique and engaging narrative to follow. This narrative is unique to a certain museum, or perhaps even a certain exhibition, ensuring a clear focus and message.
Graham Davies, Digital Programmes Manager at the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales, describes how their museum doesn’t “currently supply traditional audio tours”, instead opting for “more dynamic and agile” audio methods to “complement its art installations.”
The best examples of creative audio guides are crafted by experienced production teams, who bring together a range of factors like professional voice actors, translators, sound editors and archivists to ensure a memorable and engrossing product for the target audience. By taking the time to identify and tailor content towards the appropriate audience, guide creators can meet the demands of children to history lovers; foreign visitors to art experts.
Percy Jackson: bringing history to modern ears
A recent example of a successful creative audio guide is The Demigods, A Villa Audio Tour from the World of Percy Jackson, an exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California in 2018.
Inspired by the immensely popular Percy Jackson book series – in which a dyslexic twelve year old boy discovers his father is the Greek sea god Poseidon, and is sent to a training camp for demigods – the audio tour allowed fans of the books to embark on their own personal quest around the Getty Villa: a museum dedicated to the arts and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The museum contains 44,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities, and the guide enabled listeners to meet heroes, avoid unfriendly gods and monsters, and of course learn about and interact with their surroundings.
This creative audio guide was successful because its story was perfectly paired both to its source material and its environment. By linking historical artefacts with an exciting fictional narrative and quest element, visitors (particularly children, of course) were able to learn about the exhibits in a fun and engaging context.
The choices they made and the answers they gave within the exhibition affected the conclusion of the guide’s story (which god or goddess is their parent), providing them with a unique, tailored museum experience that celebrated what they most enjoy.
How have creative audio guides been implemented?
Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre in the Scottish Highlands, managed by the National Trust for Scotland, is a museum dedicated to one of the bloodiest and most significant battles in British history. It is the site where, in April 1746, the Jacobites fought the Duke of Cumberland’s government troops. In the resulting bloodbath, 1600 men died – 1500 of which were Jacobites.
The visitor centre lies beside the battlefield, and houses artefacts from both armies, as well as interactive displays, to keep the memory of the battle alive. It also has a creative audio guide to match, one that uses a mixture of professional voice actors, folk songs of the time, and scripts developed by expert military historians to guide visitors through the field and monuments, giving an emotional (not to mention factual) context to the site.
The team behind the exhibition explain that their audio guide has a significant role to play in “engaging better with families and international visitors” as well as creating a “strong narrative”. In order to do this, they “developed scripts for both Adult and Family tours, which were also produced in a number of foreign languages. Over 300 devices are provided fully serviced and maintained.”
Similarly, in 2014, the British Museum sought to redesign its existing audio guide in order to appeal to a broader range of visitors. Available in ten languages and enjoyed by nearly 160,000 people each year, the new guide is designed to be highly customisable, taking into account how much time the listener has to spend in the museum, and how they would like to explore the exhibits.
Visitors can therefore choose to take a quick hour-long tour of the institution’s most popular collections, or embark on a themed tour based on their interests. The guide keeps track of what the visitor sees and creates a digital souvenir from the 220 objects displayed in the museum’s galleries. They can then send themselves this souvenir once the tour is over – an extra little touch that enables visitors to not only make memories but also revisit them.
What makes a successful creative audio guide?
Before they began to redesign their audio guide, the British Museum set about researching the habits of its visitors, not just its audio guide users, to see why some people opted for audio guides, and others did not. The results were very interesting.
The main insight their research provided was that people want the freedom to explore a museum in their own way and in their own time. This means that any successful creative audio guide needs to be customisable, something both the British Museum and the Percy Jackson guide accomplish. Even if an audio guide provides more structure to the visitor experience, it should be a structure that allows for freedom of choice. A user cannot feel like they are playing a significant role in a story if they cannot affect the story’s outcome.
Several prototypes and 250 test visitors later and the results have proven to be incredibly popular at the British Museum.
One of the key takeaways at the British Museum – and one that is echoed in institutions around the world – is that entertaining visitors should be seen as being as valuable an objective as educating them. Acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake is made all the more interesting by appealing to a person’s emotions. In fact, in many cases learning and memory consolidation takes place more effectively when delivered through entertainment.
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