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Museum Podcasts: Dusty Documents to Hold-Your-Breath Stories

The UK National Archives holds 11 million records covering a thousand years of British history, but the impression of archives among the public is still piles of dusty documents. How do you radically shift that perception? With stories of course.

I worked with the National Archives to produce On the Record, a podcast mini-series that used familiar names and events as entry points for the public, stories to keep them on the edge of their seat, and exciting records to subtly demonstrate the power of archives to show us the truth behind “the stories you think you know.”

In this talk, I’ll explain how I trained the TNA staff in audio storytelling, how we together identified the perfect characters for our stories, and how I took biographies and facts and wove them into more complex narratives that are intended to make the audience cry, gasp, and rethink history. I’ll also show how, by focusing on the quality of the story, we were able to better highlight the value of the historical documents than if we had created a podcast about these documents.

This podcast series went beyond the half-steps towards story that most museum podcasts have taken and really foregrounded story as the most important element without sacrificing the core mission of the institution. It’s this radically story-focused approach that makes each episode so compelling for audiences at many levels of history-interest. It can serve a model for other institutions who may be inclined to take the “safe” route and make media about objects or facts instead of stories.


Hannah Hethmon

Filmed at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in Autumn 2019

Hannah: I’m Hannah. I’m an independent podcast producer. I specialise in podcasting for museums and cultural non-profits. And today, I want to tell you about a project I did with, and for the national archives in London, where I’m based. A podcast called On The Record. So, I know this room is full of museum nerds. So, when you see these pictures, your curiosity might be peaked. You might sense that there are stories to be found here, if you know where to look. But to the average person, I don’t think these are particularly interesting. In fact, a lot of people might have an idea of government records as mundane deposits of dusty documents. So how do you change that perception? Engage curious minds. Let more people know about the free resources that the National Archives has, and show a general public that archives are exciting and alive.

I learned to love archives during my Old Norse Studies Master’s degree at the University of Iceland and Copenhagen, which is basically a degree in touching old books and explaining why they are cool, even though there’s no pictures. I didn’t start out with any particular interests in archives or old records. I just wanted to go live in Iceland for a few years. But because I had intimate access to a faculty of passionate experts, explaining why these were the coolest things in the whole world, I fell in love with these old pieces of parchment and paper, even if they’re just tiny fragments.

Here, I’ve zoomed in on some of the juiciest bits of the documents I had on that first slide and as you can see, there are some intriguing lines. My favourite being the top one, “Please now burn this, and my previous letter,” That’s good, right? What is it? But in order to find the fascinating stories in the archives and the stories that are between the lines, you have to know where to look, and a good tour guide doesn’t hurt. In an ideal world, I think the National Archives could take everyone in the U.K., file them one at a time down into the staff reading room, pair them with a records expert, who would pull out the coolest documents and tell them their favourite stories tailored, and they’d come away being a super fan. I’ve been told that’s not a scalable model.

But by telling compelling stories, using documents as props and podcasting as medium, the National Archives can offer really intimate access to their experts and their objects. And they can offer that access to anyone who has a WIFI compatible device, even if it’s as small as my backup iPhone 5. My other one got stolen. Terrible. So, podcasts listening has grown rapidly in the U.K., in Europe, in the last few years. It’s like y’all are trying to catch up with American headstart, and I love it.

Whoops. Over seven million people in the U.K. listen to podcasts weekly. There are pod cons where people go just to meet the creators of their favourite podcasts, which is crazy to me. No one wants to meet me, but you know, whatever. An even larger percentage of people here in the Netherlands are tuning in. New Day has just released and said 5 million people in the Netherlands listened to podcasts and they listen to about 41 minutes a day. It’s kind of a lot. Wherever you are, wherever your audience is, podcasting offers access to millions of listeners who are already used to consuming long form content and have shown an appetite for narrative documentary and investigative style shows.

I do think it’s critical that before we start using any cool new medium, we look at how it’s being used by the general public. Not how museums are using it and not how museums wished people were using it. Yeah. Critical difference. Based on data and what shows are popular, we know that regular podcast listeners like long form content, true stories, deep dives, new perspectives on familiar topics, facts their friends don’t know, compelling characters and narrative.

When the National Archives approached me for this project back in the beginning of the year, they were already sure they wanted to focus on stories, not just convey facts. So, that was really exciting to me. We decided on the show concept of using true stories to … Sorry. We decided on the show concept using documents to uncover the true stories behind familiar and popular history within story-centric episodes. So, while we would be sharing facts and history, we would be doing so within a story that listeners want to hear the end of and would hopefully want to retell their friends over the proverbial water cooler at work.

There was room in the budget to start with three episodes. So, we started with a mini series on espionage, to tie in with the archives exhibit and programming on the Cold War. Spy stories are everywhere in popular culture and because the national archives has so many documents, government documents, they have a record on pretty much any true spy story of the 20th century. Also, spies are really cool and why not put your coolest foot forward, right?

So, before I tell you more, let me play you the two minute trailer for series one of on the record.

Video 1:

“Please now burn this and my previous letter.”

It was probably the most famous spy story, spy network, that people have heard of.

We’ve managed to piece together the story, because we have a voluntary statement that was made by the head of the Paris Gestapo, Hans Keith . He talks about her great courage he refers to, and the fact that they didn’t manage to get any information out of her when she was being held in captivity in Paris.

Gertrude Bell is widely viewed as the female Lawrence of Arabia, but I always held the view that maybe Lawrence should be seen as the male Gertrude Bell.

They managed to, in a sense, insert themselves into the most important and sensitive elements of the British stage, and at the same time, were managing to send information to Moscow. It was such a well-planned organisation that Stalin himself thought the whole thing was too remarkable and that it was a British plot to provide disinformation.

I think the popular perception of Lawrence today is Peter O’Toole, piercing blue eyes and white billowing robes, but that’s also a myth rather than a historical reality.

You’re listening to On The Record, a podcast by the National Archives, that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. Here at the National Archives, we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records, spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents have some incredible stories to tell about spies in our midst, if you know where to look. In this three-part series, you and I, with the help of historians and record experts of the National Archives, are going to use personnel files, secret government reports and declassified correspondence to uncover the true stories of famous spies, from King Alfred The Great, to The Cambridge Five.

Hannah: Cool. So, how did we decide which stories to tell with only three episodes to work with? First, I asked staff to brainstorm the names of spies that they thought would be familiar to every-day people. We wanted a familiar name or element of the story that people could connect with right away, that would welcome them to the podcast that they hadn’t heard before. Second, I wanted stories for which the archives documents could offer unique perspectives or little known facts that people couldn’t get anywhere else. Last, I did some very serious Wikipedia research on the list we came up with to decide which stories would best allow us to explore human universals and emotions that everyone could connect to.

These are the three episodes we came up with. First, in Archetype of a Spy, we shared an overview of British history, from King Alfred The Great, to the present, complete with some many stories about espionage through history. And then we compare James Bond to the true story of female Muslim, British Indian, anti-fascist, pacifist, super spy, Noor Khan, in order to deconstruct the popular notion of who makes a good spy.

In episode two, Lawrence and Bell, we did some myth-busting around Lawrence of Arabia. Boo. And told the lesser known story of Gertrude Bell. Yay. Who did everything he did, but better. This episode also gave us an excuse to break down exactly what happened in the Middle East in the First World War, which is much harder than you might imagine, if anyone’s tried that.

In episode three, we served up a whole lot of nuance. We started with a critical look at Mata Hari, and whether or not she actually was a spy and how she was treated because of her norm-breaking career and sexuality. Then we talked about how the Soviet spy ring of the Cambridge Five got away with so much because they were upper-class. And lastly, we got to redeem the story of John Vassal, who was blackmailed into being a double agent for the Soviets during the Cold War, because of his fear of being outed as a gay man to his employers.

In every episode we focus on narrative and storytelling. The value of a story-focused approach, I think, is summed up for me in this quote from Jack Hart. “Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action leads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives, and it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.” I think that’s something we all want to try and do in our museums, right?

So, here’s another way to think about it. Humans have been communicating through stories for as long as we’ve had language. In fact, some scientists believe that stories predate language. For a hundred thousand years, we’ve used stories to communicate essential truths about our existence and important facts to other people. It is not hyperbole to say that we’ve literally evolved to communicate and interpret information in storied form. Widespread literacy is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of all human history, right? For most of human history stories were told orally, from one person to another or from one person to as many people as could gather in a space without any amplification.

So, that means, drum roll, that podcasting at its best, is storytelling in its most essential form. Podcasting at its best, is storytelling in its most essential form. One person talking to other people, right in their ear. Most people listen to podcasts alone.

So, how did we actually turn archival records and history into rich stories? This image may be familiar to some of you. Anyone in English literature? Not English lit. Literature. General literature. It’s a story arc and can be applied to almost any story that’s ever been told, from Adam and Eve to the Lord of the Rings. I wanted the National Archive stories to feel like stories, not explanations or fact delivery. So, I wanted to include the familiar story elements. But the interviews that we did with the experts in the archives, while great, didn’t have all the information. They tend to focus on the crisis and climax resolution of the story, which is where the meat of the story is. To fill in the rest, I wrote a lot of narrative script. The narration, read by a staffer under my supervision, let us set the stage properly, connect the plot points and offer satisfying conclusions.

And speaking of satisfying conclusions, I want to play for you a two-minute clip of episode one, that I think was the single most effective part of any of our episodes in the series. In this clip, we use narration, existing audio and a little music to create a powerful denouement to the story of World War Two wireless operator, Noor Khan.

So, at this point in the episode, you’ve listened, you’re loving it so far. We’ve just heard from the records experts about the documents that can be used to piece together what happened to Noor Khan after she was discovered as a wireless operator in Nazi-occupied Paris and put in prison. We hear how she was captured. “I shall refuse to give up any information, even under brutal interrogation.” And finally, we hear that she was shot in a cell in a Nazi concentration camp. There’s a pause to let people linger on that tragic ending and absorb it. And then the narrator returns to make meaning of this and connect it to the present.

Video 2:

A bust of Noor Khan, the first monument in the U.K. to an Asian woman, was installed in London’s Gordon Square Gardens, in 2012. A speech written for the occasion by her brother, Hidayat, then 95 years old, was read at the dedication ceremony by his grandson, Noor’s great-nephew.

“May the inhuman suffering of all those who, like my dear sister, have perished under the brutal cruelty of the oppressor, not be in vain. Let us keep at heart the great ideal of harmony, which is so much needed in this troubled world today, where the concept of human rights has not yet been understood by all as being the only truest guarantee for an everlasting peace among nations. May the loving sympathy of all those present reach onwards as an example of appreciation for the sacrifices offered by all the heroic souls whose memories should never be forgotten.”

Frozen in time, Noor’s face is serious, her eyes, staring straight ahead, focused on her mission. An inscription reads: Her last word was Liberte.

Hannah: And then we tell people to listen to episode two and give all the credits.

So, how did we actually make the show? The National Archives had never done any podcasting proper before and there was a small budget. So, to keep the budget down and also to increase authenticity, we came up with a model of co-production that combined in-house and external expertise. Here’s an estimated time breakdown of each phase, not including administrative time.

So, to begin with, I worked with the interested staff members in the records and engagement departments to develop the concept, decide which stories to tell and create interview plans for them to go down into the bowels of the archives and interview their experts. I gave them a really short tech shopping list, which is pretty much just this. I actually loaned them my personal mobile sound shield. So, that kept their tech costs below the set budget of 500 pounds.

I taught their staff how to use the equipment that I told them to buy and how to conduct good audio interviews, and then we sent them out to do their interviews. They sent me back a lot of files and I spent about a month editing it all down and writing a narrative script to connect all the pieces, just like I already explained. I coached one of their staffers through narration. That voice you heard, he’d never done any narration before, but we worked together and he had a naturally good tone and it came out amazing. And then everything was back to me for final production, music editing and out. All said and done, it took us three months to do three episodes, which I think is pretty fast. If you’re curious about the practical side, I use Hindenburg Journalist to build complex audio stories.

So, how did it turn out? Well, podcasting is one of those things, it speaks for itself, literally. So, I hope you will give this show a listen and let me and the archives know what you think. Numbers-wise, the episodes got good downloads for podcasts, where a few hundred is good, thousands is great, and only This American Life and a handful of others ever hit the low millions. If you want to talk more about podcasts measurement, benchmarks, and standards, talk to me afterwards. I do not have time to get into it now.

Beyond numbers, we created a proof of concept that can be used to make the case for further, and more, podcasts funding at the archives. We also created a model that can be used to create evergreen content that ties in with other programming at the archives, and research staff develop their storytelling skills.

Series two is currently in the works. Although, I can’t tell you what the mini theme is. I promise it’s very good and very relevant. We are also hopeful that we’ll have at least one more mini series next year. Because of the three-part mini series model that we developed, primarily because of a budget constraint, it turns out we can evaluate and improve more rapidly than if we were doing 10 episodes at a time. So, it actually turned out to be a thing that we wanted to keep doing. So, for series two, we’re shortening our episodes, making the lengths more consistent, and we’ve also added a second narrator that’ll help us better interpret the interview.

In narrative podcasting, it’s best practise to summarise and give your audience a big idea to reflect on at the end of an episode. We don’t trust our listener to make the right conclusions. So, I thought I’d do the same for this presentation. I trust you. It’s just, you know. First, podcasts do not necessarily require a big budget. So, if you want to experiment with some emerging technology without spending a lot of money, this might be it. Two. Stories over fact delivery, all damn day. Stories, fact delivery. Stories, fact delivery. Got it? Stories, fact delivery. Got it? Okay. Three. Be experimental. Use all the creative space podcasting offers. There are no gatekeepers in podcasting and there are no rules. There is only stuff that sounds good and stuff that doesn’t sound good. So, try something different. Make an audio show. Interview weird people. Introduce cool sounds. Really push the boundaries. There’s no limit, no official limit, to what you can do, as long as it sounds good.

Finally, the National Archives now has these stories on all the major podcasting platforms, ready to be discovered by curious listeners on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. If you would like to listen, you can search for the show on the record, on your podcasting app, right now, right now, now, thank you, and subscribe today before you leave the conference. Thank you.

Sarah: Thank you so much, Hannah. Very interesting. And so many people actually that are listening to podcasts. I’m quite surprised. I didn’t know I’m also a part of that ultra, super soul conversation. Love it. Thank you so much. Where do you see a podcast in a visitor’s journey considering its length?

Hannah: Oh, I’ve got a microphone already. Sorry. I was like, “Please?” No, I’m good. In A Visitor’s Journey, Nancy Proctor at The Peale Centre in Baltimore-

Sarah: For all of us, I think.

Hannah: Yeah, right? And Nancy believes that museums should be production houses, not repositories of things. No offence to collections, right, but we’ve talked about extending the museum. And I think podcasts are there to, first, the people who can access your museum. They’re there to allow them to dive in and become super fans in their own time, on their couch, instead of watching Netflix, right. When they’re putting on, when they’re cleaning, they might watch Netflix, they might listen to your podcast. And then it’s also there to expand your museum beyond the exhibit and beyond the physical ability of someone to come and visit. So, I think it’s up there with any other digital programming.

Sarah: And is a podcast also possible to use like an audio tour? Is that something that you’ve worked with?

Hannah: So, I would say podcasts should be location agnostic. So, if your podcast needs to be listened to in the space-

Sarah: No, I mean, do you actually tell people, “Okay, it’s also possible to listen to it here?”

Hannah: I mean, yeah, you should definitely use your physical space to advertise your podcast. I also recommend bringing the podcast listeners into a physical community. So, have a listening party, host a podcast at brunch club. Turn down the lights, play your podcasts, have drinks and adult colouring pages, and then have a discussion about it. Podcasts don’t have to be things that are alone. People can listen alone and then come and join a community based on that.

Sarah: That’s actually the next question. Podcasts are primarily listened by individuals. Can podcast provide a joint experience or does that to kill the storytelling charm of the podcast?

Hannah: Yeah. I’ll jump on my other answer by saying, podcasts brunch club is a real thing. There’s 60 chapters in countries all around the world, on every inhabited continent. So, people really, really like to get together and talk about podcasts.

Sarah: So, people sit in a room and talk about podcasts and listen to-

Hannah: Yeah. Well, you listen on your own, right? And then you come together and you talk about [crosstalk 00:22:37] what have you been listening? What’s good? You got to check this out.

Sarah: Thank you for explaining that. So, what’s the role of music in podcast production? Does it enhance the emotional involvement of the listener?

Hannah: Yeah. I mean a little music’s great, soundscaping. I would say less is more with music, right? Sometimes I don’t always follow that rule, because it’s fun, but music draws out the emotion that you want to convey and tips listeners into, this is a sad part, this is a happy part. The same way that you might do with visuals, I guess, in a documentary or something like that. It’s dark or it’s light.

Sarah: Yes. You know what to prepare for.

Hannah: Yeah.

Sarah: What emotion.

Hannah: Yeah. Piano music, sad.

Sarah: What is the advantage, you already mentioned it a little bit, of podcasts compared to video, other than budget?

Hannah: I don’t think there’s an advantage or a disadvantage. I think audio is great for some things and video is great for the other. A lot of people in the audio fiction community are creating sci-fi audio dramas, because you need millions of dollars to make a great sci-fi T.V. show, and you need a microphone in a room to create a great sci-fi audio drama. So, there is that sense of, there’s a threshold of quality in podcasting that’s easier to get to. We used 500 pounds worth of equipment for the National Archives and I think it sounds pretty darn professional, whereas making a professional video, you can’t just use your iPhone. It is really hard to get that close.

Sarah: And there are so many podcasts happening right now. How can you make sure to be visible with all these podcast [inaudible 00:24:14] in the App Store or a podcast store. How do you?

Hannah: Well, there’s somewhere between 600,000 and 2 million podcasts out in world, which is a lot. But only about 25% of those are active, I’d say. Who knows how many more just people ranting in their basement. Not that many are actually shows that most people listen to, and there are 500 million blogs out there, and yet you all have a blog on your website, don’t you, right? So, the podcast market is much less saturated, but I think the actual factual answer is marketing. So, start with the thunderclap of marketing, right? Have a launch team, have buzz, treat your podcast premiere like a movie premiere and get people excited. Don’t just put it up on your website and hope people will find it.

Sarah: Can you actually reach a new audience with podcasts, for instance? Did you see with this example, that there were other people than the visitors listening?

Hannah: So, I think that, again, depends on your marketing abilities. So, the Tenement Museum in New York city, they use my launch model, it’s in my book, just a little bragging there. So, they had an email list and they let everyone know the podcast is coming out, tweet, share, blah, blah. They had this whole marketing buzz with just a team and an email, and their podcasts got thousands of downloads in the first week. Made top 10% of podcasts listened in the U.S. We got on the Apple, new and noteworthy homepage, and it stayed on the charts for a while, which meant it’s pretty much guaranteed that people who had not been to the Tenement Museum or never heard of it, were discovering their podcasts and listening to their stories and we’re being impacted by their mission, even if they didn’t know that the museum existed.

Sarah: Thanks. Final question. What is your favourite podcast?

Hannah: My favourite podcast is a limited series called Heaven’s Gate, that I really recommend, by Pineapple Street Media. And it’s a series-long investigation into the cold suicides of the same name in the U.S., in 1996. But it’s a super, super empathetic approach, and so within two minutes … I played a two minute clip for my workshop yesterday. You will be crying and you will be going, “These were just people.” And at the end of the series, if you’re like me, your worldview will be shattered. So, Heaven’s Gate, please listen to it. I’m a big fan.

Sarah: Okay. We’ll write that down. Thank you very much, Hannah.

Hannah: Thank you.

Sarah: Let’s hear it for her.

Interested in reading more about how to start a museum podcast? Look at this article.

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