Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Audio Guide: Pluses and Minuses

In the New York Times of October 1, 2010 I read Arthur Rothstein’s column entitled “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps”. It is the newest in the use of audio and video technology to enhance the visitor experience in the Museum. His point is that the technology is in its infancy and, at the moment, can be more distracting than illuminating.

I am for anything that brings the visitor to the museum but then I want the visitors to look for themselves and have their own perceptions and reactions. The museum experience should not be like that of the tourist who rushes from one sight to another just to tick it off in a travel guide, i.e. Eifel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre (Mona Lisa, Victory of Samothrace) etc.

Bring the audience in but don’t lead them around by the nose. The order and priorities of a museum visit should not be dictated. Visiting a museum is not like learning a language at school where you are made to learn the grammar first. It should be more like visiting a foreign country and wanting to learn more about the place and its people. At first you pick up a few phrases that may then lead to the study and mastery of the language.

Long before the audio guide existed, I was taught by my father that the first time you go to a museum or to an exhibition you should just walk around and become acquainted with what is there. In a large museum such as the Metropolitan you need to pick an area such as Greek and Roman or Medieval or American Wing or Old Master Paintings, because you can’t do it all at once. Then go through again more slowly to look more carefully at what interested you the first time round and read the labels. If you are still interested by all means take an audio guide. My complaint is that many still either tell you what is on the label or what you can see for yourself!

One audio guide that I really enjoyed accompanied the presentation at the Kimbell Art Museum of the exhibition “European Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia,” in 2000. Timothy Potts had just arrived as Director of the Kimbell from his previous post at the Australian museum. Since he had been in on the original organization of the loan exhibition he could comment on reasons for the selections and the amendments that had been made by the following administration. These inside stories make the art historical content more interesting and therefore more memorable.

Like Rothstein, I feel that the visual and audio aides can sometimes distance the viewer rather than bring him closer to the art. Art is intensely personal and I believe it should be first experienced at that level.