Magazine article The Spectator

Guiding Principles

Magazine article The Spectator

Guiding Principles

Article excerpt

What are the ingredients of a good audio guide? Henrietta Bredin investigates

These days you're more than likely, at any museum, gallery, exhibition or public building of interest, to be offered an audio (or even a multimedia) guide with which to 'enhance your visitor experience'. There will probably be a small cost involved and you will then find yourself with a pair of headphones and an attached box to sling around your neck - or something known in the trade as a wand, which looks like a large telephone with a selection of buttons to choose from.

Many people find these guides extremely useful but there will always be some (and I have frequently been among their number) who would rather find their own way around without being prompted by a small voice in their ear. That choice unfortunately puts you at risk of being overwhelmed by a shoal of guided goldfish who have just been instructed to move from exhibit no. 18 to exhibit no.

23 and have all decided to do so simultaneously. There are few things more infuriating and I think that all guides should include, as did one I listened to at the Royal Academy recently, a polite warning to watch out for other visitors.

Loic Tallon decided to look at this subject in detail while writing his graduate thesis at the Courtauld Institute of Art, becoming something of an expert in the process, to the extent that he has now published a book, Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience, and is much sought after as a consultant. He feels that a good guide can be revelatory and should be included as part of the entry price (where there is one) and never charged for as an extra. One of his favourites is the guide for the Workhouse at Southwell in Nottinghamshire. 'The building itself is almost entirely empty, ' he says, 'so the guide has to conjure up a world and an atmosphere. As you listen, you're greeted by the distinctly flustered head of the Workhouse, as if you're part of an official tour of inspection. He shows you around and takes you into the dining room, where you hear sounds of eating and comments from people who lean over and say, "Don't believe everything he says, " before going back to their meal. It's extremely vivid and clever.'

This is something of which Stephen Davies, a pioneer in this field, would approve. He compares the creation of editorial content for audio guides to producing a play or documentary for radio. And he has produced guides for houses, castles, cathedrals, Westminster Abbey and Bletchley Park ('incredibly complex information to convey, trying to explain the difference between an Enigma and a Colossus') from the earliest days of tours on cassette tape to the ultra-sophisticated kit in use today.

He has also researched and written material for motorway guides that are connected to a GPS so that as you drive past a sign to, for example, Letchworth, you can hear a brief history of the garden city movement.

TAs you pass Baldock you'll discover that it was founded by the Knights Templar, who were given permission to found a market town there, the name being a corruption, via Baudoc, of Baalbec, in Syria. Gripping stuff. 'What I always try to do, ' he says, 'is engage both the eye and the brain; point out tiny details that might not be noticed otherwise, and from that detail expand into the bigger story.'

From a random sampling of these guides I have concluded that the content is infinitely superior and more engaging when produced by an individual with specialist knowledge, the curator of an exhibition or an expert member of staff. …

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