I'm a celebrity: get me an audio tour - Museums Association

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I’m a celebrity: get me an audio tour

Getting celebrities to narrate audio tours has been controversial ever since they were first used in the 60s. Loic Tallon follows the history of star turns in museums
Loic Tallon
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Aside from celebrity status, what do Jerry Hall, Orson Welles, Bryan Ferry, Meryl Streep, Mark and Lard, Stephen Fry, Roger Moore and David Bowie have in common? The answer: they have all narrated a museum audio tour.

As PDA, podcasts and straight-to-mobile downloads enter the vocabulary of museums, questions regarding how best to meaningfully integrate these technologies into the visitor experience continue to arise. One such issue revolves around the identity of an audio tour narrator, and specifically, the use of celebrity narrators.

Critics can be quick to accuse high-profile narrators of undermining a museum or exhibition. Their logic is that by promoting a celebrity narrator as a key element of an audio tour's appeal, a museum is admitting that the audio content is not interesting enough in itself, which in turn reflects poorly on the objects or exhibition in question.

Another argument is that because a celebrity narrator will rarely have any prior knowledge of the subject, they will not be able to speak with the confidence and fluency of an articulate director or curator. These kinds of assumptions have been made from the audio tour's early history.

The idea behind the audioguide's invention at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1952 was to make a personal tour with a museum expert accessible to every visitor. Willem Sandberg, the museum's director (and thus the voice of authority) narrated.

Similarly when the American Museum of Natural History in New York installed Guide-A-Phones in 1954, and again in 1958 when the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC put in LecTours, either the director or curator took the lead. This became standard practice as some two-dozen major museums across America began offering audio tours by the early 1960s.

But the more the narrative style was replicated, the more it was criticised as dull and overly intellectual, prompting a New York Times journalist to coin the descriptive term 'the disembodied voice'.

At the root of the problem was that scripts were written by the director or curator. So it logically followed that the author should be the narrator. Directors and curators saw the audio tour as a means of asserting their identity on the museum, and visitors were thought to enjoy the illusion of being guided personally by such a learned authority. But this practice ignored the individual's ability, or inability, to write or recite an engaging script.

By the mid-1960s the Smithsonian in the US concluded that the director or curator as writer and narrator was 'a questionable procedure and appears to make for some pretty dull talks. There are some very good and quite lively and interesting curatorial lectures, but they are in the minority'.

It was an audio guide company founded in the Californian heartland of celebrity culture that began to break this trend. Acoustiguide was founded in 1957 by Hollywood composer Val Burton, and had as its first creative director Budd Lesser, a successful writer of TV westerns who signed much of his correspondence with museums The Hollywood Kid.

This pair understood how to write engaging scripts and recognised that a professional actor was best prepared to deliver them. They also understood the increased public appeal a celebrity narrator could bring. They started what is now common practice and took responsibility for producing the script. Although a curator retained an editorial authority, their monopoly over the narrating role ended and a more open-minded approach to narrator selection began.

It was then just a matter of time before the first celebrity-narrated audio tours appeared. Vincent Price did a tour for the Phoenix Art Museum in 1964 and Arlene Francis narrated the Art of Fashion exhibition tour at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967.

But it was when museums moved to money-spinning blockbuster exhibitions that celebrity narrators came into their own. Occasionally there have been links between narrator and subject. Leonard Nimoy narrated a Star Trek exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in 1992 and Allen Ginsberg an exhibition on Beat culture for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995.

Particularly intriguing narrators include Orson Welles at the San Franscisco's de Young Museum, which staged Tutankhamun in 1981; Meryl Streep, who did Claude Monet; Impressionist Masterpieces at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1991; and David Bowie was used for Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997.

More recently, at Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kevin Bacon became the voice of Van Gogh, and Omar Sharif is the high-profile narrator for the re-incarnated Tutankhamun exhibition touring the US.

British museums have usually been more conservative, preferring a tangible link between narrator and subject matter. In 1961 London's Science Museum and the Manchester Art Gallery became the first museums to offer audio tours, and following the established wisdom the scripts were written and narrated by curators.

However, SoundGuide soon tried to change this. Founded by George Barker, the conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Claude Gordon Glover, a popular BBC commentator, the company suggested that scripts be prepared by them, and that professional actors narrate. Initially this was accepted.

The BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan Thomas narrated SoundGuide's first tour, at the Imperial War Museum in 1963, and Glover himself narrated SoundGuide's next tour in the British Museum's Duveen Gallery in 1964.

It is telling that in the UK and the US it was the audio guide companies, and not the museums, that championed the use of celebrities. In the 1960s, audioguide usage was about 5 per cent of visitors for permanent collections and 15 per cent for temporary exhibitions, which is often about the same as it is today.

Using a recognised narrator was considered a means of inducing visitors to use the system, which if successful would make audio tours more financially viable.

British museums and their public were slow to warm to audio tours, and in particular perceived non-curatorial narrators as undermining a tour's intellectual credence.

So when the National Portrait Gallery installed SoundGuides in 1966, the museum's trustees insisted that David Piper, the museum's director, narrate it. Even when Acoustiguide brought its rich American experience to Britain through the purchase of SoundGuide in 1979 little changed.

In 1995 the National Gallery decided to use unnamed actors for its permanent collection audio guide, most of which can still be heard today. This gave the tour a homogenous museum voice - only the most fanatical listener will realise that the narrators are cast members of the Radio 4 soap The Archers.

Where celebrities have narrated, there has been a link to the subject matter - even if it has been a little tenuous at times. Bryan Ferry narrated the Royal Academy's Pop Art exhibition in 1991 - his credentials being that he studied art under Richard Hamilton at the University of Newcastle. Jerry Hall's qualifications for narrating Tate Modern's 2002 Warhol exhibition were that she could be considered an icon and that she had once sat for Warhol.

Established national sages are the more common narrator genre in the UK: Peter Ackroyd did a permanent collection tour of the Museum of London; Stephen Fry has narrated numerous tours including the recent Degas/Toulouse-Lautrec/ Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain; and Tony Robinson narrated the children's tour at the Manchester Art Gallery and the family tour at The Deep in Hull.

'We generally use trained voiceover artists who have many years' experience, not just as actors but as radio presenters,' says Nathalie Jacoby, the senior creative manager at Antenna Audio. 'And whilst we never use a celebrity for celebrity's sake, it's wonderful when a great name with a genuine interest and link to a subject come together to create a very personal tour.'

A celebrity's involvement can make a tour more memorable, and their involvement can attract new audiences. So, when carefully selected, a celebrity narrator's persona can contribute positively to a tour. And as some museums seek to reduce the museum's voice in their displays, recognisable narrators can provide an ideal middle ground.

But as Iona Keen, the creative project manager at Espro Acoustiguide, warns: 'Institutions should also be aware that people in the public eye are subject to as much hostility as they are admiration; indeed some visitors may be put off from taking an audio tour because they personally do not like the voice of the celebrity in question, or do not like the celebrity as an artist.'

Audio tour history shows that the celebrity narrator can be a valuable asset. And as new narrating styles continue to be explored today - notable examples include the audio tour discussion between Jonathan Dimbleby and exhibition curator Richard Humphreys at the 2005 Tate Britain exhibition A Picture of Britain, and the light-hearted tour of the Manchester Art Gallery's permanent galleries by radio comedians Mark and Lard - the celebrity narrator is unlikely to disappear.

But the one identifiable 'rule' is that selection of the narrator must be governed by what's on display and the intended audience.

To measure a narrator's 'success' is difficult. Two of the most popular tours ever were the Orson Welles and Meryl Streep tours, which achieved take-ups of 44 per cent and 64 per cent respectively.

Likewise there can't be many British visitors to the Forbidden City in Beijing who do not indulge their imaginations with the Roger Moore narrated tour. Celebrity involvement is undoubtedly capable of stimulating interest and encouraging more impulse purchases.

When listening to a celebrity narrated tour, after the initial introduction, the narrator's identity becomes largely irrelevant as the story dominates the listener's interest. And if the celebrity's involvement can increase take-up, the educational potential this difference represents might be sufficient to justify the investment.

But as museums are forced to raise more of their own income they often operate their audio tours as an income generator. They are available to visitors as a paid-for extra, and so it shouldn't be surprising when celebrity involvement with an audio tour is seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to increase take-up and in turn income.

But if an audio tour is an informal educational tool capable of mediating a richer museum experience, then why do museums expect to generate revenue from them? After all, visitors aren't paying to use the labels.

Loic Tallon is an independent researcher and consultant

Museum Practice 34 features a practical guide on creating hand-held and multimedia guides

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