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Listening To The New Museum

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Issue: 38 Section: Arts Geography: Canada, USA Topics: technology

July 10, 2006

Listening To The New Museum

Podcasts are changing the way we see and hear museums

by Tim McSorley

New technology is bringing fresh voices into traditionally stodgy places. photo: Jimmy James
With the May 26 opening of its Heteropia exhibit, the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) has joined the prestigious ranks of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia in a movement that could change the way visitors experience museums. Each of these museums now offerS audio tours of their hallowed halls downloadable in advance to any MP3 player.

New podcasting and audio recording/playback technology is breaking new paths in what is often seen as the decidedly stodgy and last-century culture of museums and art galleries.

The OAG's version comes with a twist. While the MoMA and Pez offer officious tours laden with classical music and musings of curators and experts, the OAG's tour is directed by the artists themselves. "Compared to larger museums, it will be more relaxed. Each of the artists [on the MP3 recording] has a different style," said Veronique Couillard, public programming director at the OAG. "It lets visitors see a different side of the artist." The program will also allow a smaller independent gallery like the OAG--which cannot afford to bring in large numbers of speakers or to constantly have expert guides available--to offer a new, inexpensive dimension to its exhibits. Beyond helping smaller, cash-strapped museums, this technology has the potential to radically change the way we perceive and interact with museums and art galleries.

Although modern museums are primarily independent, not-for-profit institutions, for a long time they were the halls of official information. According to Kyla Tichkowsky, who holds an MA in Museum Studies from McGill University, it was no coincidence that museums proliferated at the same time western states began turning to democracy. She says the ruling classes established museums as a way to present the information they felt the common people needed before they went out to vote.

"It was a way for the power of the dominant class to maintain the status quo. The people who had control kept control," explained Tichkowsky.

In more contemporary times, museums have become the refuge of tourists, students and others wishing to get a snapshot of a place or time in history or art. And while their purpose has shifted emphasis from official mouthpiece to academic endeavor, the language, lay-out and overall atmosphere of a museum remains decidedly that of a central authority handing down the "official" truth.

Just as more affordable digital video cameras have affected the film industry, low-cost, user-friendly MP3 recorder/player technology can help foster a decentralized "Do It Yourself" (DIY) ethic, presenting alternative information created outside the sphere of institutions, big business or specialists.

While podcasts and online audio-tours had already begun popping up in the far reaches of the Internet, Art Mob brought the trend into the spotlight when it was launched last year. This class project from Marrymount Manhattan College took an irreverent twist on the MoMA. Professor David Gilbert had his class record their discussions regarding various artworks from the MoMA permanent collection and upload the audio for others to download. While the content itself is not overtly political, the idea behind it had the DIY motivation that has inspired many to take the art and academic world out of the hands of experts and place it into the hands of the general public.

"I want [Marrymount students] to learn that they do not have to be passive consumers of content from any medium, whether it be television, radio, the Web, or even an art museum like MoMA," Gilbert told the Marrymount Manhattan Monitor last spring. "From an organizational perspective, we see something important happening today. Thanks to personal computers and decentralized technologies of communication like the Internet, it has become harder for organizations to maintain proprietary control over their goods and services."

Like any trend, DIY audio-guides have already begun to "go corporate." Both MoMA's are obviously attempting to lure in more visitors with their downloadable tours. There are also open-air, city tours available for download across the Internet, but even they have not been able to escape a level of corporate assimilation. Soundwalk.com is perhaps the clearest example of making a buck off of the new technology. However, with non-corporate sites such as www.podguides.net coming online, the use of audio-guides for political and cultural subversion continues at the margins.

Museum podcasts have yet to hit Montreal, and according to Marie-France Lapointe, communications director at Pointe-à-Callière museum, it could be a while before that happens--at least officially.

"At Pointe-à-Callière, we focus a lot on the interpersonal expert. Instead of simply hiring guides, we employ experts in archaeology and historians who provide valuable information to our visitors," she explained, adding that human guides allow for greater interaction and allow for questions and answers.

The concern of a decreased human interaction isn't the only potential obstacle to this new museum experience. Even with the increased affordability of MP3 players and audio recorders, as well as growing access to the Internet, the question of who has access to this technology remains.

For the OAG, the benefits of the technology outweigh the costs. The gallery is making at least two MP3 players available on loan, a measure that will hopefully provide a more interesting experience on a lower budget. While there is potential for change, though, it could be a long time before it seriously challenges mainstream museum tours, particularly in the face of resistance from more traditional curators.

"There is a fear in the museum community that the curator loses their authority," said Tichkowsky. "But the idea is to acknowledge other voices and different kinds of authority. It takes away from the curator the role of being the only authority. That ideology has a lot of potential to change things."

Originally published by Siafu Magazine

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