Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Trouble with Audioguides

Witold and I were recently at the MoMA to see the Richard Serra exhibit, and we wandered through the upper floors of paintings, photography and design. I have a habit, sometimes, of watching the people watch the art. I am, perhaps by nature, an observer. It was while watching a family of four, along with some other tourists, look at Paul Cezanne's "The Bather," when I really got stuck thinking about those troublesome Audioguides.

You know these Audioguides: a telephone-like device which you hold to your ear as you walk through the galleries. You punch in the number that corresponds to an item in the collection, and the Audioguide gives you background, perhaps some narrative or anecdotes, or information on technique, historical context, or even the details of how the museum came to own the piece. They are narrated by the curator, the museum director, or often by some celebrity or voice-over actor who has some vague, or more direct, connection to the exhibit. I was once involved in the securing talent for Audioguide tracks for an exhibit of African-American prints and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The trouble with Audioguides is that they make art-viewing a passive experience. They create an essentially didactic relationship between the art and the viewer, and force museum goers down a kind of "best-of" cafeteria line-style museum experience. Most museum visitors, particularly in large tourist destination cities like Paris, New York and London, are new to art, or at least to new to skills or tools which may help them have a more meaningful, personal experience.

If a group of people are briefly gathered around a painting looking in silence, there is some kind of interaction going on within that group--they have, collectively, created a relationship with each other, and with that painting. The Audiguides remove that (however brief or fleeting) sense of community that is randomly created over and over again as people pass through the galleries. (Not to mention the traffic jams.)

I understand the benefit--new museum goers are often intimidated by art and museums in general, and it's good to have a "companion" to guide you through the art, and give you some, if limited, context or background. Particularly for beginning viewers, Who painted it and When are less important than, for example, what ideas or feelings that beginning viewer might discover if pressed to consider the work on her own. Why delve into the art if all you need to know about it is fed through a device in your ear? Movements, styles and periods are meaningless to most museum goers--and the Audioguides often distance us from the work itself, relegating it, again, to the elite world of Art, capital A.

Perhaps I can offer this example more clearly: At the Greenmarket, where I work selling maple syrup, what makes me the most irate are the customers who force their children to do math during a transaction. "Now, I just gave him five dollars, little Jenny, so how much do I get back?" The more interesting--the more important--lessons learned from shopping at the Greenmarket have less to do with math than with sustainable agriculture, local economies, and the plain old (read: extraordinary) miracle of food. You can talk about all these ideas on a child's level, of course.

So, go to the museum. Look at the art. Watch it. Think about it, wonder about it. Skip the Audioguide.

**Much of my pondering which inspired this post has been informed by the work of Abigial Housen and Philip Yenawine. Read more about their work here.**

***Check out this project, in which people created their own podcasts--witty, musical, sardonic, Audioguides--that you can put on your iPod and bring with you to the museum. (These are created for the MOMA, specifically.) In this way, at least, you're getting alternate perspectives.***

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