We know that the works in your collections have hundreds of stories to tell. This guide will give you tips on choosing content that captivates and how to best communicate with your audiences.
For museum professionals, we often wonder what types of audio content will inspire our visitors. To answer this question at the New Museum, we conducted an evaluation in late 2019 during the exhibition Hans Haacke: All Connected that included surveys of over forty visitors to determine what they look for in an audio guide.
1. Offer answers to the question: “So what?”
While it may seem obvious, most visitors look to audio guides as a source of information about what’s on display. In particular, nearly 40% of visitors surveyed said they wanted to learn contextual information about works of art in order to better understand their importance. In interpretation, we often call this the “So what?”. When considering what bits of information to include on an audio guide, asking yourself the question “So what?” or “Why should I care?” can help determine whether or not visitors will find that information relevant.
For example, if you plan to include information about who owned a work of art before it entered your collection ask yourself “So what?”. That information could be engaging if it is a well-known historical figure or someone relevant to your community, but might be misplaced on an audio guide if none of your visitors have heard of this person and it doesn’t illuminate something about the work itself. Let “So what?” be your guide to selecting relevant stories to share on your audio guide.
On that note, each stop on your guide should focus on a single story. Visitors can become overwhelmed by a list of facts and figures about an artwork. But our brains instinctively gravitate toward and remember well-constructed stories. Choose the most compelling story about your work and have all the information provided support that story. The best length for audio can vary but we recommend 1-2 minutes per artwork. While the time may fly by, this guarantees that you won’t overwhelm your visitors with a meandering story.
2. Teach your visitors how to look, not what to think.
Visitors love to be guided through your exhibition but they don’t want to be told how to interpret the works on view. As one visitor explained, “I liked that the guide was not interpretive but helps you understand the work. I don't like being told what to see but instead opens possibilities for thinking about the art.” The guide should serve as a jumping off point for visitors, inspiring them to get curious and continue their exploration of works of art, rather than provide a definitive reading. When offering interpretations of a piece, using conditional words like “maybe” and “perhaps” to suggest that this is only one of many possible ways to view a work. Providing multiple interpretations is also a great strategy for modeling that thinking about art can evolve and change with further looking.
Asking questions can also be effective for encouraging visitors to think for themselves. However, be thoughtful about the questions you pose. First and foremost, the question should be something you would enjoy answering yourself and that engages you with the work in a new way. Open-ended and subjective questions are recommended for encouraging visitors to think critically about works and finding personal relevance. One visitor began to view their city differently after contemplating questions on the guide: “I liked the questions she asked, which were engaging. I’m thinking now of the history of the city and how it has changed. Really thought provoking.”
Visitors also enjoy being drawn into details of works of art that they likely would have missed on their own. It’s not compelling to tell a visitor they are looking at a portrait of a girl, but pointing out that the subtle flower pattern on her dress represents her virginity helps them to see the girl in a new light. This is the power of the audio guide: “The guide helped me see more than when I passively receive the environment. I understand the purpose of the work.”
3. Use clear, accessible language.
Like with any good interpretation, it’s important to communicate with your visitors in a way that they can easily comprehend. Remember, museum fatigue is real! Even while enjoying their visit, your audience may become exhausted, shortening their attention spans and ability to process complex ideas. Who wants to work hard during their time off? Clear and accessible language is an easy way to make sure that visitors stick with your audio guide. Some visitors commented that the audio guide was easier to understand than label text in the galleries and one said, “The guide was good because a lot of people wouldn't read all of this. I liked the voice, which was articulate and didn't use hard vocabulary so it's easy to understand. Very clear.”
Visitors also respond positively to a conversational tone, one that didn’t meet their expectations of the authoritarian (or “stodgy”) museum voice. Over 20% of visitors surveyed when asked what they remembered about the guide commented on the tone and voices featured because it empowered them to connect more with the content. One visitor said, “I was surprised by the voices; they were more casual and I expected something more robotic. The personal quality was nice. It was accessible but didn't feel like it was talking down to you.” A conversational tone also mirrors a format that many visitors may be familiar with: podcasts. As another visitor explained, “It was like listening to a podcast; not talking at you but more conversational. I also liked the female voice because it's usually an old British guy.”
4. Get creative on who is speaking.
While curators are a wonderful font of information about our works of art, they aren’t the only voices suitable for audio guides. Artists, educators, and even visitors themselves can bring new perspectives to your audio guide. (MoMA recently featured a wonderful guide that highlights the voices of their security staff.) Think outside the box! Using multiple voices keeps the content sounding fresh and engaging, as one visitor noted, “It was a nice mix of different people that made it interesting.”
Visitors responding to our survey were especially appreciative to hear directly from the artist when possible. Across several questions on our survey, viewers continuously responded positively to hearing the artist’s voice. “I like that it's not a curator, instead features the artist and someone else. I prefer this to the ‘voice of the museum.’ It adds an additional layer of commentary and offers a different perspective.” Some visitors even suggested they would prefer to hear from a family member or friend of the artist in order to make more of a personal connection with the works. If your exhibition features artists that are deceased or otherwise unable to participate, using archival materials or even artist quotes can be a nice work-around.
We’d love to hear more about your strategies for creating engaging and relevant content for your visitors. Let us know!