Create museum audio guides that seamlessly blend past and present through audio storytelling (Case Study: The Panorama of the City of New York and the 1964–65 World’s Fair at the Queens Museum).
If you’ve seen the recent Netflix series Pretend It’s a City with Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese, you’ll notice that this not-so-miniature miniature model of New York City makes an appearance.
This is the iconic Panorama of the City of New York, created by Robert Moses and model maker Raymond Lester for the New York City Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. On long-term view at the Queens Museum, the model city occupies 9,335 square feet, includes a total of 895,000 individual structures, and represents 320 square miles of land mass and the 771 miles of shoreline of New York’s five boroughs. It also includes miniature cars, boats and trains as well as an airplane landing and taking off at LaGuardia Airport.
Amy Raffel, Ph.D., Andrew W. Mellon Interpretation Research Fellow at the Queens Museum, shares why creating an audio guide to accompany the exhibition was particularly important for the museum, “The Queens Museum has always wanted to make our exhibitions more accessible with audio content, and now, it’s easier than ever to produce audio tours without relying on expensive equipment. Gesso has played an important part in presenting this new material online, it’s an impressive platform.”
Let’s dive into how to incorporate archival audio into a compelling audio guide experience.
When exploring the history behind the Panorama’s installation, it was a no-brainer to incorporate archival audio. It is, after all, a living and historical document, representing multiple moments of New York’s past and present simultaneously.
Take for example the eight minute “helicopter tour” that was open to the public from 1964–1965. Visitors sat in small, helicopter-sized cars on a track that took them along the route that the current open-air ramp now follows. The ride was narrated by then-famous newscaster Lowell Thomas in an audio recording titled “The City of Opportunity.”
Today, visitors can still hear this audio clip in the Panorama’s audio guide. Although the descriptions from the original model city are outdated, museum visitors of today get a chance to imagine what it might have been like to be a visitor at the World’s Fair.
At one point in the audio clip, you can hear Thomas reflect, “Look at this map and you’ll locate the human race. This is as far as we’ve gone. A quick snapshot of our progress on Earth. By tomorrow, it will have changed. Far more than stone and glass, this turbulent city capital of the 20th century is energy. The cumulative force of 8 million people who daily inhabit its towers, walk, ride and play in its streets and give this city its meaning.”
Including this audio clip from the past gives museum visitors of today an opportunity to transport themselves back in time and offers the chance to imagine what standing in this exact location 50 years ago might have felt like. It also provides a sense of nostalgia for those who were lucky enough to experience it firsthand.
“We get people all the time at the museum who have been to the actual Fair and they wander into our offices and seek us out to try and tell us about their experiences. There’s a deep connection between our audience and the exhibit,” says Raffel.
Raffel’s voice guides listeners through the history of the city from the George Washington Bridge (one of the world’s largest suspension bridges) to the Freshkills Park (once the largest landfill in the world). For all the daring accomplishments mentioned, Raffel also notes the importance of understanding the larger context of the time period.
“It’s always good to look back at things with a critical eye and realize that even though there were a lot of accomplishments and development, it displaced a lot of communities and a lot of people didn’t feel that development equally,” she says. The same goes for the 1964–65 World’s Fair audio guide.
“The World Fairs are kind of this bygone era, and the 64–65 Fair was this amazing event, but it was behind the times in a lot of ways too. I thought it was important to highlight the protests that happened through racial equity groups during the time. In the audio guide, I also mention that there were only two people of color that were hired to work for the 64–65 World’s Fair. One of the main motivations behind the Civil Rights protests in New York was about jobs, education, and police brutality. All these city resources and opportunities were being presented at the Fair, but these opportunities were not spread equally,” she says.
When it came to sourcing materials for these audio guides, Raffel notes the incredible role that working with programs like the Queens Memory Project played. “The Queens Memory Project is a part of the Queens library, and they basically chronicle Queens’ history through interviews by recording people’s memories.” she says. For example, Raffel uses interview clips in the audio guide to spotlight one fairgoer as he marvels at astonishing innovations like IBM’s Selectric Typewriter and another fairgoer as she, a first year teacher, and her students cherish their unforgettable first bite of a Belgian waffle topped with whipped cream and strawberries gushing in flavor.
Incorporating these perspectives adds tremendous value to the museum’s audio guides, allowing visitors to engage more personally, meaningfully, and critically with the content. Finding the right material to use is a process that might take some time but is worth it in the end, especially for exhibitions on long-term view and permanent collections. “Because it’s evergreen content, it’s something that won’t churn immediately when the season is over,” says Raffel.
Raffel’s best advice for how your institution can make the most out of archival materials?
1. Work with what you’ve got: “The first step is taking stock of your assets. You have to work with what’s available to you and be opportunistic. If you don’t have a budget, there’s already so many people on your staff with different levels of expertise on a given exhibit. You can interview curators, security guards, tour guides, or superfans. There’s ways to get this content and diversify it without spending a lot of money. For me, I was also able to build on a lot of work I’d already done. I had previously given talks on the World’s Fair collection, and I’ve given tours about the Panorama multiple times.”
2. Know your audience: “The Queens Museum has done a lot of research, including surveys and focus groups, on our audiences to figure out what attracted them to our collections. Get to know an exhibit and why people come to visit it and what they want to know about it to really inform how your program should be.”
3. Dive right in: “Start outlining, writing scripts, and experimenting. Then, you can start recording, sound editing, pairing the audio with images, and publishing the material. It’s ok if you haven’t done something like this before. I’ve never used audio editing before, and I’ve never recorded my voice before, but there’s so much you can do with an iPhone these days. When editing, also keep in mind that you’re not writing a wall label or an essay, so you really have to think about what your brain can listen to and retain. It has to be conversational, accessible, and paced well. Overall, when the pandemic hit, we didn’t have much digital content, and I saw this as an opportunity to start experimenting. So, whenever you have a pilot, it’s good to just do something and go from there.”
Ready to reimagine museum storytelling? Check out our Museums page to get started.