For museum professionals working to connect their institutions with new and existing audiences, there are an ever increasing list of channels available and it can be hard to know where to focus limited time and resources.
This article focusses on the possibilities that producing your own podcasts can offer museum professionals, why it is an important part of a public engagement strategy and how to go about making them. Initially, however, we will discuss what exactly a podcast is and look at some museums around the world that have utilised them successfully.
What Is a Museum Podcast?
A podcast is nothing more than a digital file which can be downloaded and listened to or viewed when desired. This means that it differs from a streaming service because it requires sufficient memory available on the device downloading the podcast. However, the distinction for a museum-style of podcast is not necessarily worth worrying about because it is possible to allow the public to both stream and download whatever you have produced for them, if wanted, depending on your strategy.
Although the derivation of the term podcast is not universally accepted, most people agree that it is a portmanteau word that blends iPod and broadcast. These days, the word podcast is mostly associated with audio formats only. However, some people use the term netcast instead of podcast, especially when video formats are being discussed. For museum professionals, it is important to know about these the two terms since they tend to get used interchangeably, something that can cause confusion amongst the uninitiated. Put simply, podcast is the more widely used term but if someone refers to a netcast they could be talking about an audio podcast, a video one or a combination of the two.
Having established what a podcast is, the definition of a museum podcast can also be interpreted differently. In the main, the term refers to podcasts made for or by museums and galleries. However, it could equally be used to refer to an amateur production of self-appointed museum reviewers or enthusiasts. Suffice to say, this article deals exclusively with the former rather than the latter.
Museum Podcast Case Study – The Minneapolis Institute of Art
When MIA wanted to start making podcasts, it did so for a simple reason – it wanted to explain more about some of the remarkable objects in its collection. As such, the podcast series was named very simply as The Object. Each of the podcasts in the series focussed on a particular item housed at MIA and went into detail about it, describing its cultural significance, its history and its connections to other items, whether they were in the same museum, or not. When Holland Cotter, who is co-chief art critic of The New York Times, wrote in 2016 that museums needed to reclaim their role as tellers of truth and as explainers of history to remain relevant, the powers that be at MIA took his words seriously. Cotter had said that American institutions, in particular, needed to convey more about their own story to help contextualise history better.
As a result of Cotter’s opinion piece, MIA decided that the best way for it to fulfil its role as a history explainer to the wider community would be to produce podcasts. The director of MIA at the time, Kaywin Feldman, said that only such an audacious institutional change would be good enough. As such, MIA became one of the first exponents of podcasting in the museum sector. Bear in mind, however, that producing podcasts was not MIA’s only response to the challenge set out by Cotter. Diversification in the museum’s collection and other aspects of community engagement ran in parallel to museum podcasting.
The approach MIA decided upon was not to focus on broad sweeps of culture or to deal with the MIA as a single entity, but to look at interesting pieces one at a time. It did so by telling stories because, it must be recognised, that even the lowliest museum exhibit has a back story, some reason for being a museum piece at all. According to MIA, storytelling was seen as the most effective tool they had to turn ideas into understanding among the public. The podcasts, though centred on individual items, aimed to integrate the truths of these stories into the experience of the listening public.
Such aims may seem high-minded, but MIA has enjoyed success with The Object. The podcast is now available on nearly all of the major podcast outlets. Indeed, episodes have now been made available to stream, as well as download, opening them up to an even wider potential public. The podcast has an educational role, taking the place of the sort of long-extinct radio broadcasts that used to be made by museum curators, whilst promoting the MIA and making it seem like a more accessible, less stuffy establishment.
Does Making a Podcast Mean Getting on a Bandwagon?
Podcasts are incredibly popular these days. In many cases, they are not as expertly produced as voice-based radio, however. They tend to have a more conversational feel because – in many cases – they really are just recordings of two or three knowledgable people chatting about a given subject matter. For museums, deciding to move into what is already a crowded area may seem foolhardy. When there are numerous podcasts from the world of sport, entertainment and the arts, where do museums find their niche?
However, far from making podcasts because they happen to be trendy right now, museum professionals should be looking at it from the other end of the lens – or microphone, in the case of an audio podcast. What museums have to offer is something entirely unique. Whereas you might find a dozen podcasts devoted to popular TV shows, there will be little by way of competition in the area of specialisation that your museum has. Yes, more and more galleries and museums are making podcasts nowadays but each establishment is one-of-a-kind even if it comes down to its location and which communities it serves. No two museums will have exactly the same artefacts in its collection, either.
Even if you are faced with a current podcast that is engaging with the public in a similar area to your niche already, then there is another factor to take into consideration before you run the risk of creating a ‘me too’ netcast. Your own museum staff all have their own views and ways of explaining what makes their work unique. Today, there are at least half a dozen galleries in the United States which are making regular podcasts, albeit some more often than others. Even so, the market is not saturated. Each of the contributors to them has their own take on the subject matter at hand. Indeed, listeners may have their appetites whetted by engaging with what scholarly professionals have to say about art and want more podcasts, not fewer.
As such, museum boards should understand that podcasting is not something that they have to do because everyone else in the sector is and they will get left behind if they do not join in. Museum-focussed podcasting is still in a nascent state and forward-thinking professionals can still blaze a trail for others to follow. Even so, where similar content currently exists, there is still lots of potential for museums to benefit from by taking up this sort of engaging technology.
Getting Started With Podcasts for Museums
One of the key things that makes podcasting such a popular way to engage with a wide audience is that it is cheap. Setting aside video production, podcasting requires very little outlay. In fact, all you need is a single computer with a digital audio interface, some audio editing software and a microphone or two. Some podcasters get going with a tiny budget. After all, uploading audio files to a podcasting platform is cost-free. You don’t need to store or make the files available on your own server. The whole process is carried out in the cloud on third-party servers.
What is needed, in the context of museums, is a strategy. Of course, it is better to establish this from the outset and to tweak it as you go, if needed, rather than to be highly experimental with your subject matter and format. When a podcast works well, it will necessarily be informative, fresh and entertaining with every new episode. However, if the format alters dramatically from episode to episode, then building an audience which keeps returning will be harder to achieve. The way to avoid this, of course, is to work out what you want to achieve and how you intend going about this before you even start to commit anything to audio.
Equally important will be your visual identity. When people are looking for podcasts, they will need to see your logo or something else that they can instantly recognise. Most good marketing teams in museums and galleries will already be aware of the importance of a consistent visual identity but this aspect can catch out smaller institutions. The Museum Confidential podcast from Philbrook Museum of Art shown above has a strong, recognisable brand.
Likewise, you should do a little research into the various podcasting platforms around – such as iTunes, for example – where you will publish your content. In some cases, you may want to publish your podcast with every available platform provider in order to reach the largest potential audience. Another consideration to think about is whether you can use widgets on your own website to embed your podcasts, perhaps on a dedicated page or on ones that happen to strongly relate to the subject matter at hand.
When it comes to recording your podcast, you will need to work out whether to go for a straightforward conversation style between two or more experts or a scripted show. There are pros and cons of each. Some museums have successfully blended the two whereby a regular presenter is appointed who gives an overview of the podcast by way of an introduction. He or she would then go on to interview other members of the team or guests about the subject matter the episode happens to be about before summing up, again, usually from a predetermined script. This format tends to work well, offering two natural cut points where you can stitch your audio files together to make a continuous but free-flowing podcast.
You don’t need a huge amount of experience to edit audio files to cut out errors or dull sections of conversation that won’t make the final podcast. However, for the first few podcasts, retaining the services of an audio engineer may be useful to ensure that the audio levels are listenable from the different microphones and that edits sound seamless. You don’t necessarily need a professional recording studio, either. However, your chosen room to record in needs to be reasonably quiet, to say the least. The only other thing to consider from a technical point of view is the file format you may need to convert your podcast to in order to upload it. This tends to alter depending on the podcast platform or platforms you are electing to use.
What Content Should You Provide In Your Podcasts?
So far, we have looked at the wider podcast phenomenon and the potential benefits it can bring to the museum sector. You should also have a basic understanding of what is required in podcast production – very little compared with other sorts of online content. We have also touched on how museums, of any institutions, are uniquely placed to be able to provide distinctive and thought-provoking material. After all, museums are quite literally stuffed with items that are unusual or distinctive, whether they are historic or simply the finest examples of their kind.
As such, the question of what ought to go into your podcast may seem as though it is a strange one to pose. If you look at the MIA case study, then this is especially the case. Surely, any museum or gallery that wants to podcast successfully should replicate their model and make episodes that are devoted to one artefact after the next? After all, the BBC made a very successful series of broadcast radio programmes in a podcast style entitled, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. In the show, the state broadcaster effectively made a version of MIA’s ‘The Object’ with each programme being devoted to an item taken from the extensive collection at the British Museum.
However successful and intuitive that format may be, it is not the only option to consider. According to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, museum-focussed podcasting does not need to follow this tried and test format at all. SFMOMA produces a podcast which has many of the same aims as MIA and the British Museum but which doesn’t really sound like it is made by a museum at all. Their podcast, Raw Material, tends to come across more like an audio version of a magazine feature, delving into a wide range of cultural phenomena, usually according to a particular theme for each episode.
In fact, SFMOMA has really pushed the idea of what podcasting for museums and galleries can be about. This may not be a surprise given that the museum started using podcasting technology as far back as 2005 when it started to make audio guides for visitors. These were made in-house by the gallery’s own staff who, understandably enough, acquired the skills necessary to make ever more ambitious podcasts. Raw Material is the natural successor to those early attempts and the scope and ambition of it reflects their expertise. Of course, it is possible to turn to professional radio and podcast producers to close that gap if you don’t have the in-house skills to make your own dynamic format. That said, many in the sector see the idea of making use of their own staff’s passion for explaining as the preferred route to take.
Podcasting helps museums engage with the public. It also helps the public to engage with museums more readily. They can educate, entertain and throw the light of truth onto less understood areas. A cost-effective way of producing engaging content, they can be incredibly diverse and – given that the public already tends to hold museums in relatively high esteem, even if they don’t visit them – they can speak with immediate authority, something that many podcasts simply cannot claim of themselves.