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How to Peacefully Co-exist with Interpretive Technology: Audio Guides: Must They be a Menace?

One of the central missions of a dynamic collecting institution is the interpretation of objects it displays. Constructing the information and methods of transmission typically falls to the institution’s educators, who are completely and desperately dependent upon the (often volunteer) services of docents, who personally impart this to members of the public through group tours, public gallery walks, and other means of direct interaction.

But, there may come a time when your institution plans to create or agrees to host an exhibition that has requirements that are overwhelming for a typical docent corps. Perhaps it is a “blockbuster” exhibition that for financial viability will require huge numbers of patrons in a steady 8- to 10-hour day for the next six months. Perhaps the institution’s director, realizing that not everyone learns from printed texts or objects, seeks an alternate vehicle for interpretation. Or, perhaps the complex content of the exhibition or collection seems more appropriately conveyed with academic authority when an “expert’s voice” leads visitors on their difficult intellectual journey.

There can be many reasons why your institution may choose an audio guide for a particular exhibition, collection, or aspect of the institution. But when this interpretive technology is contemplated in place of trained docents, hurt feelings and fears of obsolescence can suddenly come to light. Take heart! Co-existence is possible !

Control the Message (or at least be aware of it)

First, if your institution is considering creating this audio guide itself, find out how much input educators can have in the content and interpretive approach the audio guide’s script will use. Or, if the audio guide is a pre-packaged exhibition tour originated by another institution, find out how much involvement educators had in its development.

While curators or other information specialists deal with facts, educators deal with how facts are communicated. When communicating interpretive information, one size rarely fits all, and it is educators and well-trained docents who are the experts in reaching diverse audiences.

Determine the approach the audio guide script will take ahead of time to help understand and manage the direction that interpretation will take. Does the script take the visitor on a connoisseur’s tour? Does it take an interactive approach, actively engaging the visitor with guiding questions? Is it heavy on names and dates, history, or technique? Does it provide a narrative, storytelling experience? Having some involvement or control in the crafting of the script will help in achieving early “buy-in” and ownership of the final product.

The audio guide script’s interpretive approach will largely depend on the exhibition or collection, but should also be dependent upon the institution’s anticipated audience and its needs. The approach should be the agreed-upon basic interpretive experience that, at a minimum, you want every visitor to have.

Planning the Interpretive Strategy

Once you have determined what the content and interpretive approach for the audio guide should be, establish that as the foundation of your interpretive strategy. “Foundation” is the key word here, because it will ground you but by no means must limit the interpretive variations that are possible or required in various situations. The approach is only the beginning.

For instance, if the audio guide is a curator’s inside look at the works on display, don’t be concerned that she or he is an expert and has the last word on the subject. Fashion a tour based on connections that you discover between the objects, or based on knowledge that you possess. Or, perhaps you might elaborate upon a side-theme suggested by the exhibition and make that the centerpiece of your own interpretation. There are many directions you can explore once you know where “home base” is.

If possible, try to obtain in advance copies of the script just as you would an exhibition catalogue, gallery text, or signage, and study it as your primary resource. (If a script is being created from scratch, or you are the first venue in a traveling tour, a good audio tour production company should offer early and ongoing communication with the client regarding script development, and can provide draft copies along the way.) Knowing what is not being covered in an audio tour can focus your approach, too.

Dens ex Machina versus Vox Humana

Fears of obsolescence are common in today’s fast-paced, computer-literate world. Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Age, people have been fearful that technology might replace them. The gallery of the 21″ century is no different in this respect than the factory of the 19* century. It is easy to view the unseen decision-making power in the adoption of these machines as a threat to the personalized, voice approach docents have in fashioning their own tours.

As fascinating and instructive as audio guides and other interpretive technologies can be, they cannot provide the depth and personal interaction that a well-trained individual can offer. Only a human interpreter can size up the particular needs of an audience, and make the subtle and individualized adjustments in approach necessary to ensure a positive, growth experience for the visitor. Only a docent can ask informal pre-tour questions of a group and later incorporate their responses into the gallery discussion in a way that activates the group members’ personal information base and ignites their interest.

That being said, audio guides have their place and satisfy ever-more common challenges faced by institutions every day. If we need to have between 100 and 200 people circulating through an exhibition every hour, yet there is 1:20 docent/visitor ratio, can we expect 5 to 10 docents to perform tours every hour on the hour for 4 to 6 months? Audio guides do “amplify” an institution’s interpretive reach, can provide bi- or multi-lingual tour experiences, and empower visitors who might prefer to make their own viewing choices or learn at their own pace.

A Case in Point

When American artist Andrew Wyeth approached the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2000 to produce a landmark exhibition of his works, the planned audio guide caused increasing unease among the docent corps.

The institution had an eight-year history of using audio guides, having adopted the mechanisms for logistical and marketing reasons. Docents had previously learned to live with these devices based on the mechanisms’ limited use, and the weaknesses of the technology (in the days of portable, cassette players).

But, when the audio guide script took an early and decisive turn away from the dry formalism and technique-laden jargon one could expect from the standard art history discussion, the dissonance caused a growing fear. The audio guide was now focusing on the magical and powerful stories discovered about the subjects of this exhibition of portraiture. The compelling narrative was designed to draw listeners into the deep integrity and sensitive vision of an artist who transcended societal and racial boundaries. And, the talented actor and director Morgan Freeman lent his voice to the guide, weaving elements of aesthetics, technique, and art history into a warm, comforting, and uplifting account.

When the docent corps heard the final version in the days prior to the exhibition’s opening, and discovered that Betsy Wyeth the artist’s wife, was moved to tears by its affecting intensity, their fears intensified. How could they compete with the wealth of emotional and factual detail, not to mention the magnificent narration by a popular celebrity? Then, it happened. The docents’ role began to clarify itself. Visitors to the exhibition, many of whom had never seen or heard of Andrew Wyeth, were transfixed by the images, and by stories of the artist and his subjects. The power of the depictions affected viewers deeply, and many visitors wanted to talk about their responses. Who better to speak with than a sensitive educator, who might guide visitors along this deeply emotional journey?

The docent corps, equipped with the exhibition book, audio guide script, and additional resource materials, found its role and discovered that it had not been displaced. Docents offered something to the audience of an incalculable worth — a personal, human approach. The situation proved to the museum staff, the visitors, and the docents themselves that docents were a critical and indispensable component of this, or any, exhibition.

Co-existence Tactics

So, how can you ensure that the addition of interpretive technology will ultimately strengthen and not detract? The following are some practical tips to keep in mind when introducing audio guides where docent interpretation is already present:

If there is only one audio guide choice for patrons (for instance, an adult version), make sure your institution markets docent-led tours toward other audiences (such as students, children, and families). Offer regular, standing walk-in tour appointments for the general public and advertise them. Select times when visitor traffic is heaviest, and be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of ages and interest-levels. Make the tours, and the visitors being toured, feel special. Some patrons will be lured by the Gee Whiz! Factor and want to try out the audio guide. Make certain that the person who books tours can explain the benefits of docent services, such as personalizing the tour. If your docent corps is trained and prepared to do so, offer its services to teachers and student groups that have specific, curriculum-based learning objectives that pre-existing audio guides do not address. This applies equally to adult groups with a special interest, for instance garden clubs or veterans groups, whose focus might not be dealt with by the audio guide. When accommodating a tour group, do not give them the option to receive a docent-led tour and the audio guide. This will give group members uneven experiences and diminishes the importance and value of the human contact. Determine with the group specific needs and recommend one or the other, but not both on the same visit.

Be Not Afraid

Frequently, visitors need something to mediate their visual experiences in a gallery setting. That mediator may be a gallery handout or wall text. It may also be a docent.

Audio guides can never supplant a vigorous docent program or the value of the personal connection a docent can make with his or her audiences. To compare them would be like comparing apples and oranges — they are different, not interchangeable. There are recipes and circumstances that require apples and only apples will do. But apples cannot displace oranges. There is no need to fear the produce aisle; preferring one or the other is fine, but your well-stocked grocery store will provide both. And so it should be for museums.

J. Marshall Adams is an award-winning museum educator, author, and consulting art educator for the Mississippi Art Commissions “Whole Schools Initiative. ” He serves on the board of directors of the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education and is the former curator of education at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, MS, where he directed the development of five adult and children’s audio guide projects.

Adams, J. Marshall. “How to Peacefully Co-exist with Interpretive Technology: Audio Guides: Must They be a Menace?,” The Docent Educator 12.2 (Winter 2002-03): 10-12.

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