Magazine article The Spectator

Galleries: In Praise of Audioguides

Magazine article The Spectator

Galleries: In Praise of Audioguides

Article excerpt

Do you, or do you not, fork out for an audioguide -- one of those necklace-like, strappy contraptions you're offered at the beginning of exhibitions, which cost an extra £3.50?

The nation is divided. Some loathe them -- as I was reminded reading an obituary of the historian Eric Christiansen, which said, 'The British Museum's Viking Exhibition in 2014 drew his wrath as visitors blocked everyone else's view as they listened to their headsets, while ignoring any object which did not have a spoken description.'

I blushed, because that's exactly what I do. Not in room one or two, when I'm still all energy and excitement and take pains to look at every single item with equal attention. But by about room five, when I discover that there are still seven more rooms to go, I start giving scant attention to items that don't have a headset sign and full rapturous attention only to items that do. I notice that even people without audioguides tend to cluster round any 'headset' item, because the headset sign denotes importance. I feel sorry for the second-class items either side of it that don't have a headset sign, but life's too short, and the exhibition's too long, to worry.

I love audioguides: indeed, I have come to depend on them. At their best, they make the exhibition-going experience feel as if you're actually in a documentary written and narrated by a wonderful amalgam of all your favourite art-historian presenters. They alleviate the long, lonely silence of exhibitions. I love the music of the period they play to you in room one, to get you in the mood. It really works. Without the help of the co-curator's voice in my ear, I would simply never have noticed (to give an example from the current Russian revolution exhibition at the RA) 'the way the samovar reflects the vessels on the table' or have known that 'those Soviet banners were probably painted by icon-painters'. I pity the audioguideless people around me who aren't hearing these fascinating insights. Audioguides are proof that we have not 'had enough of experts'. When a narrator says, after a long spiel, 'Press "33" if you'd like to hear more about the design of cuffs in the 1650s,' I'm strongly tempted. Even if I don't go quite as far as pressing '33', I like knowing there's a bank of additional knowledge I could tap into if I wanted to.

What's more, with an audioguide, you're spared having to read the writing on the wall. I've never been good at reading the writing on the wall, metaphorically or literally. …

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