Monday, February 21, 2011

Audio tours - how participatory do we want our visitors to be?

It would be such a boring world if we all agreed with each other. In museum circles opinions on the level of interaction that we expect between exhibition visitors and with an exhibition itself vary widely. A couple of articles in recent museum magazines highlight this. On the one hand a reviewer in the UK’s Museum Journal commenting on the redeveloped Roman Baths exhibition at Bath notes that “For all the exciting opportunities to connect with audiences through interactive displays and costumed interpretation, audiences are failing to connect with each other… there was a sense of physical isolation and passive participation….at odds with the noisy and lively way in which the baths would have been experienced in Roman times”.

Across the Atlantic the American Museums Association Jan/Feb magazine reviews Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, discussed in my blog last year. The review is somewhat critical of Nina’s goal for museums to “change the dynamic of the visitor from passive consumer to cultural participant, similar to the way YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Wikipedia have transformed our expectations for accessibility, community and interactivity”.

It sounds as the reviewers should have swapped assignments and they would each have been happy! The answer in my view is that it is horses for courses. Some exhibitions are better placed to be participatory than others, just as some visitors choose to be actively involved whilst others not. Check out my blog on the work the Dallas Museum of Arts has been doing on understanding the latter, identifying four types of visitor clusters, namely: Observers, Participants, Independents and Enthusiasts.

However one comment that caught my attention in the Roman Baths article was that passive participation could be attributed to audio guides. Whilst these are providing useful information and increased dwell time, the article says, they are also inhibiting discussion and a shared experience.

This is an issue on which I have had many a robust discussion. Personally I very rarely take audio tours except when I am visiting a museum on my own. I much prefer taking my own time and route and sharing observations and experiences with whoever I am with. Audio tours tend to lock you into your own world and dictate your pace and route (“when the music stops move onto the next exhibit” etc).

That said there is no doubt that audio tours provide a much more meaningful experience to many visitors, and are a highly effective tool to have in the visitor access tool box. What intrigues me is how the next round of audio tour technology evolves. They have developed from clunky cassette players to wands to MP3 players. Surely now they will move into smartphones through dedicated apps, and indeed as I previously blogged, there are signs this is already underway. What I find particularly exciting is the iPad format, as at last we have a way in which exhibit content can be delivered on a big enough screen that it can be shared with others. But this is going to need some logistical readjustment with visitors no longer having to pick up and drop-off an audio tour machine at the entrance, but now download an app onto their own smartphone/iPad either before hand or at the time of arrival. Sorting out the business model around this is going to be interesting, e.g. how is the app charged for, along with coping with current reticence by visitors to use their own equipment.

I see the Museums and the Web 2011 conference program in Philadelphia in six weeks time has a number of papers on this issue, so, as I shall be there, I will report back soon.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

1 comment:

  1. Hi Julian. I would love to chat about your thoughts on where you thing things are heading in this space at MW2011. Drop me a line (hello [at] and we can meet up.