From Headphones to Microphones: Co-creating the soundtracks to culture

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From Headphones to Microphones:Co-creating the soundtracks to culture- or MuseumsandtheWeb.comAvoiding the Zombie Apocalypse

Wonderful to be back in this great city of open innovation that my 6-year old daughter calls Instagram seems an appropriate name for Amsterdam in the 21st century, no?1

Audio Tour 1.0: Stedelijk Museum, 1952


In fact Amsterdams museums have been innovating with mobile technologies for decades as you may well know, this city is the birthplace of museum mobile or at least the documented history of it! How many of you have seen this video before?You are the first audience Ive ever played this for who will understand the voiceover! For those who may not be able to see my slides, I am going to try to interject a few verbal descriptions in English as well, and hope hearing a bilingual soundtrack doesnt make anyones head explode 2

Mobile through the Ages


3Its easy to laugh at the sheep-like behavior of the users of this early audio tour, but technologies like radio broadcast and the cassette player like the walkman - first personal mobile media player actually enabled quite sophisticated content and experiences, with a full narrative arc including context, background, immersive sound effects, and even navigational help between stops.

But it was easy to get lost in the content in the broadcast or cassette tape tour, so the audiotour field moved to digital random access players. Here are a couple of the earliest models. They were supposed to liberate us from forced marches through the galleries, allowing us to listen to what we wanted, where and when we wanted. And the digital audiotour devices with its telephone-style keypad proliferated in a number of sizes and shapes.

This shift in technology also shifted the emphasis in content creation away from linear experiences to stops or soundbites of mobile information timed to correspond roughly with the ability of people to stand in one place for a period of time without becoming impatient or aware of their aching feet. This technology shift literally changed the story, and arguably museums lost the grand narrative we no longer know when a visitor listens to the stop about the Nightwatch if they have heard anything about Rembrandt before. Should the precious minute or so that we can hope the visitor will stand in front of the painting include a biography of the famous artist for those who may not have encountered western art before? Can we afford to include a few seconds of atmospheric sounds to help immerse the visitor in the feeling of the Dutch Golden Age? With the liberation from the herd, we lost access to a particular kind of museum mobile experience, that could consistently include the background and contextual information that helped transport us to another world, as well as ground us in the story.

Fraunhofer Institute, Kunstmuseum Bonn: Beat Zoderer exhibition (Listen project) 2003

Its NOT about the Technology

4So there has been a lot of new technology over the past 60 years of mobile in museums, but I would argue relatively little in the way of true innovation in the visitor experience for the past generation because our content creation has really been dominated by the model that emerged with the random access audio player at the dawn of the digital age: the stop.

Now, if youve ever heard me speak on mobile in museums before, youll know Im fond of saying, its not about the technology if we forget that, we turn our visitors into strange cyborgs like our dear friend, Norbert Kanter, pictured here in a 2003 location-aware installation in the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, wearing a large antenna on his head in order to experience the location-based soundtrack of the Beat Zoderer exhibition.

This is still my anthem - indeed, if you remember only one thing from my talk today, its that museums should be focusing their time and resources on creating content over technology. Too often museums have lost sight of the real problem they are solving, and have sunk literally millions of dollars into developing technologies like location-based content delivery and apps that dont actually move the needle on mission, audience engagement, growth, or the quality of the visitor experience, and moreover are obsolete in a matter of years and I am as guilty of this as anyone. Time and again, we have seen that what survives from these abortive attempts to be cutting edge and innovative is the content like, for example, that great video we saw of the Stadlijk museum at the outset of this talk.

Fraunhofer Institute, Kunstmuseum Bonn: Beat Zoderer exhibition (Listen project) 2003

Nonetheless, some true mobile innovation has emerged from two notable sources in my experience: the accessibility field, like the early Stadlijk museum tour, which used a radio technology that was originally developed to help people hear the soundtracks of news reels in cinemas; and the work of artists, like Halsey Burgund5



Mobile InnovationsStops become soundtracksSoundtracks are no longer linearThe broadcast is a conversationThe conversation is asynchronousThe body is the interface


In the Scapes app, the innovation is not the technology not the GPS, or even the opensource platform, Roundware, that the artist developed for crowdsourcing, though both of those things are interesting. The real innovation happened on the content level on the structure of the audio experience itself, which took us far beyond the traditional museum audio tour.

Again, Amsterdam and the Stadlijk museum have been sites of critical thinking about building experiences that take us beyond the audiotour as well in my book, Mobile Apps for Museums, MARGRIET SCHAVEMAKER wrote about her work at the Stadlijk museum using augmented reality to create para-tours. At Museums and the Web in 2010, Koven Smith introduced the term un-tour, and there is even now a company that calls itself Detour in the US - they are partnering with SFMOMA and do indeed deliver a very different, immersive quality of experience, more like the popular podcast series, RadioLab, than a traditional audio tour.

The appetite for and availability of immersive, participatory experiences like these has also grown in related fields, like theater, where weve seen the huge success of participatory plays like Then She Fell and Sleep No More. Mobile apps like Scapes tap into that zeitgeist. What all these experiences, be they theater or mobile apps, have in common is that they do not port inherited structures and content onto new platforms; they use the new affordances of the technology to enable new ways of telling and experiencing culture.7

Audio Tour 2.0 3.0?


What we havent yet seen in museums is this kind of mobile tour:8

MoMA: I See9


I See is both immersive and personalizedWhy havent we yet experienced this kind of tour? Its not really a technology problem. As we know from shopping on Amazon or simply using Google, where there is an abundance of content to choose from millions of products and billions of web pages, for example - profiles emerge from our content use that enable highly customized and even predictive online experiences. The technology already exists; what is lacking in the museum field is the wealth of content that personalization requires. 9

Thinking Outside the AudioTour BoxFrom Headphones to MicrophonesFrom we do the talking to we help you do the talking. Chris Anderson, Wired, Smithsonian 2.0 Conference, 24 Jan 2009From interpretation to conversation. Max Anderson; Gather, Steward, and Converse, The Art Newspaper, 8 June 2010

So we have the technology to create immersive, context-aware, and highly personalized experiences. It is the content we are lacking. To create the content we need to use the full potential of modern mobile technologies, and stop using the supercomputers in our pockets as simply MP3 players. We must think outside the audiotour box, and move from headphones to microphones, from interpretation to conversations to inviting new voices to speak about our collections and museums, and create new kinds of mobile experiences that will have relevance and resonance for audiences both new and core. 10

Recruit the World!

When I headed up mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian, we described our vision for mobile as Recruit the world because this is the truly transformative opportunity of the latest generation of mobile devices. I often used this image of hands clasped in a circle on which the globe is painted to illustrate the concept and our need for many hands to do the work of that vast Institution. Modern smart phones arent just MP3 players: they allow people to participate in multi-way conversations, and museums to benefit from global knowledge by listening as much as they talk.

One of the few technologies that actually helps bridge the digital divide, the now nearly ubiquitous mobile phone allow us to tackle the kinds of tasks that museums will never have the money, staff or resources to do on their own. 11

Access American Stories

One example: the lack of verbal descr