If you work for one of the world’s most renowned museums like the Thyssen, the Prado or the Tate, you do not need to keep reading: surely your audio guide already incorporates storytelling, accessibility, augmented reality, and who knows how many more features. If that is not yet the case, you are probably already discussing how to incorporate all that.
But many of you are museums facing the task of producing an audio guide for the first time and you are not sure where to start.
If you are looking for a straightforward audio guide with which you can effectively offer explanations about pieces in a room, in several languages, perhaps the recommendations that follow will be useful, whether you prepare an audio guide together with us, or if you do it on your own.
Choose the exhibits that you want to explain to your visitors
Even if your museum is small, it will not be possible or desirable to provide explanations for all your pieces. Before you start writing the script, consider which objects are going to be the subject of a verbal explanation. To avoid overwhelming your visitors, the amount of information and length of audio clips should be limited.
Of course, all your pieces are wonderful and making a selection is very difficult. But take comfort in the knowledge that your choices are an indirect way of guiding your visitor to the works you would like them to pay special attention to.
Here are several criteria that can help you choose:
The piece is of particular historical or artistic value, a highlight for the museum that would be inconceivable to leave out.
The piece has a function or importance which would not be understood without an explanation.
Perhaps the piece itself is not especially valuable, but it has an interesting or significant history.
Perhaps the piece is not very valuable, but it draws much attention by the public.
Keep in mind that it is normal for visitors to pay much more attention to the works at the beginning of the tour, when he/she is full of energy and interest. Over the course of a visit, a person naturally tires and the desire to stand in front of an object listening to the explanation decreases. If you have too many pieces present in the audio guide you run the risk of using up all your audience’s energy in the first rooms, and then they rush past the last pieces. (Nubart audio guides do not have to be returned, so if your visitor is exhausted he/she can continue to listen comfortably sitting in a coffee shop or in a hotel several hours or days later, but it is nonetheless better to avoid excess within the museum).
You can always take this selection of pieces as a work in progress and keep refining it. Nubart provides you with information about which are the most listened tracks and feedback from visitors, so over time you will know which are the most appreciated tracks. If you decide to add or remove content, we can do it easily and at any time.
Complement the explanation of the pieces with introductory remarks
Audio guides need not be limited to explaining the exhibits. You can also add introductory remarks for context, for example to present the contents of a room or to give some general brushstrokes about the artist whose work you are going to present.
Keep in mind that if the introductory remarks are not linked to any specific object these are usually the “hardest” tracks for the visitor, who arrives eager to see things and may not want to stand still listening. Stick to the essentials and try to make them especially attractive and brief.
Incorporate the original voices of curators and artists
An important added value for an audio guide can be direct testimonials. How about having the artist explain directly to your audience some of his pieces? It is very special to hear the voice of the artist while you admire his work. If your museum is scientific and an international expert has visited, why not ask a very brief explanation about a piece by this specialist and add it?
You can also do this with the curator of an exhibition. Curators sometimes go unnoticed by the general public and many are grateful for the opportunity to provide their particular point of view on their conception of the exhibition or on the choice of a particular work. We did this with Amador Vega, curator of The Thinking Machine: Ramón Llull and the “ars combinatoria” at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and it was a success. His wise contributions complemented and greatly enriched the more conventional audio tracks we also offered.
In the case of temporary exhibitions, time is short and it is not always possible to generate content beyond the posters for the exposition. Especially in that case, a significant added value for the audience of your audio guide can be direct testimonials, which are easy and quick to obtain. If there is absolutely no other option, you can even record them on the phone: the authenticity of having the original voice will beat unperfect recording quality.
Remember: you are writing for listeners, not for readers!
Many museums plan to create an audio guide only to provide explanations in other languages and to satisfy foreign visitors. Some of them are tempted to use the existing descriptive text on the walls of the rooms as a script.
However, most likely at least half of a museum’s visitors are from the same country as the museum. An audio guide not only fulfills the purpose of explaining the works on display to tourists, but also of expanding the information already available in the room. If you only offer an audio copy of the text that the visitor is able to read on their own on the walls of the room, they may feel disappointed or cheated. It is therefore necessary to expand, synthesize, adapt or improve on the written material already on hand. (That said, allowing a visitor to listen to information rather than read lots of text, especially when viewing a piece of art, is often preferable.)
“Improving” does not necessarily mean giving more facts and figures. On the contrary, the concentration of the person listening is very different to that of one who is reading. For example, it is best that your audio guide not describe height, width, depth and weight measurements of a piece to several decimal places: such precise data can make a lot of sense written out on the wall, but we can hardly assimilate them if we only hear them. Reduce dates and numerical data to essentials.
For the same reason it is not recommended to use long sentences and many subordinate phrases. Usually your visitor will be standing - that is, relatively uncomfortable - and listening. Put yourself in his shoes and read aloud what you have written. If your tongue gets tied while reading it, the professional speaker will probably find it difficult to translate that text fluently and naturally. Cut out or divide the sentences which are most challenging to read aloud.
You can create a special audio guide for children or one designed for a very professional and educated audience. You can even offer your visitor the possibility of choosing between one track or another (with Nubart you can do this).
But usually your audio guide is to satisfy the needs of the general public, not an expert. Therefore, avoid professional jargon, specialized terms or industry-specific knowledge, even if, as a specialist curator, you are a little embarrassed by the lower register. 99% of your visitors will appreciate it (and the remaining 1% can always go to the store to buy the catalog ;-) )
If you want to embellish the audio guide, make use of anecdotes or curiosities related to the piece: it will help your visitor not only to remember this work, but also your museum, which is also what it is all about.
Calculate the length of the audio guide
Synthesizing information is an art and a challenge. But there is nothing more oppressive for a visitor than a track that is too long. Three minutes sitting comfortably on the sofa at home flies by, but 3 minutes standing between strangers in front a piece can be an eternity.
Did I say 3 minutes? Actually, that is already much too long! The ideal length of an audio guide track is less than two minutes. We have checked this, stopwatch in hand: the tracks of the best audio guides we know of rarely exceed two minutes.
Figure that about one minute spoken text is equivalent to approximately 150 words. To be safe, keep each track of your audio guide under 300 words.
Most likely, none of your visitors will listen to all the tracks of your audio guide: precisely one of the attractions of this resource is that the visitor can choose which are the pieces for which he/she wants to have expanded information. Nonetheless, the total time of all tracks together should not exceed the time it would take to visit the exhibition without the audio guide. You have probably calculated the average visit time in your museum: a good guiding measure for the ideal length of an audio guide is to divide that time in half. So if your visitors usually spend an hour in your museum, your audio guide could have a total duration of 30 minutes.
We believe that you, the curator, are the person who knows your museum best and that you are most appropriate person to collect the relevant information about each piece and put it in writing for your audio guide. (However, if you want us to take care of the script as well, we can do it: ask us for a quote!) We (Nubart) will review the script that you propose and will advise you on possible adaptations or improvements. Our standard rates cover the translation of your script into other languages and professional speaking, so everything else will be taken care of.
To go deeper into the subject and also learn how to improve your script even more by adding verbal descriptions for people who are blind or have low vision, don’t miss this great article by Lou Giansante.
Agree or disagree with some of these points? Feel like adding something more? Leave us a comment!