At Museums: Invasion of the Podcasts
By RANDY KENNEDY
NY Times, May 19, 2006
PITY the early adapters to the museum audio tour.
In 1958 the National Gallery of Art in Washington embedded transmitters under its floorboards and handed out radio receivers so the electronically inclined could listen to something called LecTour, a recorded guide to the museum’s masterpieces. But the signal sometimes sounded as if as was arriving from Tibet, and unless you caught a lecture at the beginning, you had to wait for it to start over. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s version, introduced in 1963, was more tractable but a lot heavier. Patrons rented a tape player about the size of a loaf of bread, carried around with a leather shoulder strap.
Over the years the technology improved, and audio tours became ubiquitous. But they are now being upended around the world by something eminently more portable, accessible and flexible: podcasting, the wildly popular practice of posting recordings online, so they can be heard through a computer or downloaded to tiny mobile devices like iPods and other MP3 players. In the spring of 2005, when a professor and a group of students at Marymount Manhattan College made waves by creating their own, unauthorized MP3 audio tour for the Museum of Modern Art, few art institutions were even exploring the idea of podcasting as an alternative to official audio tours, created by companies like Acoustiguide and Antenna Audio.
But in the short time since then, museum podcasts — both do-it-yourself versions and those created by museums themselves — have taken off, changing the look and feel of audio tours at places ranging from the venerable, like the Met and the Victoria and Albert, to the virtually unknown, like the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., and the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia near San Francisco. (“As far as we know,” intones the museum’s co-founder, Gary Doss, on his thoroughly homemade podcast, “this is the only place in the world to see every Pez.”)
The podcasts are making countless hours of recorded information — like curators’ comments, interviews with artists and scholars, and even interviews with the subjects of some artwork — widely available to people who have never visited, and may never visit, the museums that are making the recordings. If, for example, you do not manage to make it to the Met to see Kara Walker’s show “After the Deluge,” you can still hear her talk about it while sitting on the subway or walking down the street.
Smaller museums like Mr. Doss’s are also using the medium as kind of low-budget radio station — findable through iTunes or Internet podcast directories — to publicize themselves and tell their story in a direct, personal, sometimes quirky way. If, for example, you were not able to make it to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Tex., to see its recent show “Sharp Horns, Soft Seats: The Art of Horned Furniture,” you can go to the museum’s Web site, http://www.panhandleplains.org, and listen to the exhibition’s podcast to get a pretty good feel for the museum and for the frontier chic of bison-horn coat racks.
“There are a lot of places out there that are trying to use this as a new way of communicating who they are, and you can communicate differently than you can online, on a static page,” said Robin Dowden, the director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which in addition to podcasting also allows patrons to use their cellphones to listen to exhibition information (as does the Brooklyn Museum for its William Wegman show now on view; patrons dial a number that is provided at the exhibition and then use the phone’s keypad to navigate the tour).
At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which began producing podcasts last September, the idea almost from the beginning, said Peter Samis, the museum’s associate curator of interpretation, was not just to create a new kind of audio tour but also to free the audio tour from the confines of the museum.
“We made a conscious decision that this was going to be a kind of audio art zine,” Mr. Samis said. “And we weren’t going to draw any hard and fast boundaries about whether you listened to it in the museum or during your commute.” The museum offers a $2 discount on admission to anyone showing an MP3 player with the museum’s podcasts on it; it is also sponsoring a contest in which amateurs are invited to submit their own podcasts, the best of which will be featured alongside the museum’s.
The museum’s monthly recordings, called “Artcasts,” do feel less like audio tours than like slightly cerebral radio shows you might catch while driving to work. They can run longer than half an hour and in the last few months have featured William Kentridge, the South African artist, talking about one of his works on view; interviews with patrons looking at Chuck Close self-portraits (“It’s amazing how many different ways you can do the same thing,” one viewer said); a cellist performing music inspired by the art of Bruce Conner; and even a breathy reading by J T Leroy, the waifish writer who later turned out to be the creation of a San Francisco woman named Laura Albert.
Mr. Samis said he and his colleagues were still tinkering with the feel of their podcasts, which they want to sound like an “alterative to the tried and true, you might say hackneyed, canonical audio tour.” The podcasts are made with the help of Antenna Audio, Mr. Samis said, but he decided last year against using one of the company’s voice-over professionals because the man’s voice sounded “too official.” Another of the company’s commentators was chosen, with a very National Public Radio polish to his voice.
“It’s still a little bit more than what we want,” he said. “We’re not looking for Mr. Museum Voice. Not Charlton Heston.”
At the Met, which joined the podcasting revolution last year, Philippe de Montebello — as close to Mr. Museum Voice as anyone will probably come and long the sonorous narrator on the museum’s official Acoustiguide audio tours — can still be heard reading Milton on one podcast for a show of Samuel Palmer’s work now at the museum. But the Met is also beginning to add new kinds of voices for the new format.
For its British fashion exhibition “Anglomania,” the museum somehow recruited John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, the former lead singer of the Sex Pistols, for a snarling disquisition on the decline of the British Empire and the rise of punk.
He ends the podcast with a smacking sound and the signoff: “You’ve been kissed by Johnny Rotten.”
Allegra Burnette, the creative director for digital media at the Museum of Modern Art — which began podcasting and offering all its audio-tour programs for free downloading not long after the Marymount Manhattan College unauthorized tour became widely publicized — said that people had downloaded about 12,000 audio pieces from the museum’s Web site since the program began last summer, including 2,000 downloads in the past month alone.
The pieces — created with the help of Acoustiguide — are also being downloaded from iTunes and other MP3 sites, but numbers from those sites are not available, Ms. Burnette said. (For a brief time last summer, before the podcasting phenomenon exploded, the museum’s downloadable audio tours rose to No. 21 on the iTunes list of the Top 100 podcasts in the world.)
“It seems to be catching on, and people are figuring out where to go to find it,” she said, adding that the museum was also considering a plan that would allow MP3 users to dock their devices at the museum to download programs if they did not do so before coming. It is also beginning to dip into its extensive archives of recorded interviews — there’s one from 1962 with Duchamp — to make podcasts of that material available, in conjunction with WPS1, the Internet radio station of the museum’s affiliate, the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.
“Previously you’d have to go into our archives and ask for these kinds of recordings, which only the most dedicated people would do,” said Kim Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the museum. (Some museums’ Web sites provide archives of podcasts and also include some older recorded material, but others do not.)
While museums around the world are now scrambling to distinguish themselves as podcast innovators, it may have been Mr. Doss, the proprietor of the Pez museum, who can claim the distinction of the first American museum podcast. A former computer-store owner, he learned about the technology early on in 2004 and in his home office in the spring of last year he created a 50-minute podcast tour, lovingly describing the collection of colorful candy dispensers that he and his wife have amassed since 1988 and now display in toothbrush racks in a storefront in Burlingame, Calif.
“People who never would have heard about us are finding us because of the podcast,” Mr. Doss said. “And it’s not even really what you might call the most professional podcast.”
“If you hear a kind of a strange ringing sound in the background while you’re listening to it, it’s not a sound effect,” he added. “It’s my cockatoo. I couldn’t get him to be quiet while I was recording, and finally I just gave up.”