Guiding Principles

What are the ingredients of a good audio guide? Henrietta Bredin investigates

The Spectator, 3 July 2010

These days you're more than likely, at any museum, gallery, exhibition or public building of interest, to be offered an audio (or even a multi-media) guide with which to 'enhance your visitor experience'. There will probably be a small cost involved and you will then find yourself with a pair of headphones and an attached box to sling around your neck or something known in the trade as a wand, which looks like a large telephone with a selection of buttons to choose from.

Many people find these guides extremely useful but there will always be some (and I have frequently been among their number) who would rather find their own way around without being prompted by a small voice in their ear. That choice unfortunately puts you at risk of being overwhelmed by a shoal of guided goldfish who have just been instructed to move from exhibit no. 18 to exhibit no. 23 and have all decided to do so simultaneously. There are few things more infuriating and I think that all guides should include, as did one I listened to at the Royal Academy recently, a polite warning to watch out for other visitors.

Loïc Tallon decided to look at this subject in detail while writing his graduate thesis at the Courtauld Institute of Art, becoming something of an expert in the process, to the extent that he has now published a book, Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience, and is much sought after as a consultant. He feels that a good guide can be revelatory and should be included as part of the entry price (where there is one) and never charged for as an extra. One of his favourites is the guide for the Workhouse at Southwell in Nottinghamshire. 'The building itself is almost entirely empty' he says, 'so the guide has to conjure up a world and an atmosphere. As you listen, you're greeted by the distinctly flustered head of the Workhouse, as if you're part of an official tour of inspection. He shows you around and takes you into the dining room, where you hear sounds of eating and comments from people who lean over and say 'Don't believe everything he says' before going back to their meal. It's extremely vivid and clever.'

This is something of which Stephen Davies, a pioneer in this field, would approve. He compares the creation of editorial content for audio guides to producing a play or documentary for radio. And he has produced guides for houses, castles, cathedrals and Bletchley Park ('incredibly complex information to convey, trying to explain the difference between an Enigma and a Colossus') from the earliest days of tours on cassette tape to the ultra-sophisticated kit in use today. An inspired idea of his is for motorway guides that are connected to a GPS system so that as you drive past a sign to, for example, Letchworth, you can hear a brief history of the garden city movement. As you pass Baldock you'll discover that it was founded by the Knights Templar, who were given permission to found a market town there, the name being a corruption, via Baudoc, of Baalbec, in Syria. Gripping stuff.

'What I always try to do,' he says, 'is engage both the eye and the brain; point out tiny details that might not be noticed otherwise, and from that detail expand into the bigger story.'

From a random sampling of these guides I have concluded that the content is infinitely superior and more engaging when produced by an individual with specialist knowledge, the curator of an exhibition or an expert member of staff. In Munich, at the Alte Pinakothek, which I had visited on a number of previous occasions, I found myself looking properly at paintings that I'd only glanced at before. Commentaries were given by experts who, as I had selected the English option, either spoke in English or, if not sufficiently fluent, in German which faded subtly away to be replaced by a translation. I was led from a Rubens canvas to look at a drawing in an adjacent room that I might not have found otherwise; I discovered that Altdorfer's Battle of Issus is known in German simply as the Alexanderschlacht and includes a depiction of the island of Cyprus and the mouth of the Nile. It genuinely deepened my appreciation and increased my knowledge.

Most big organizations in this country use one of two companies to produce their audio guides - Antenna or Acoustiguide. The ideal scenario, as Tallon and Davies would agree, is for editorial to be created by people who have real, in-depth understanding of their subject, and who can then take advantage of the technical expertise in designing hardware that these companies can offer. This is what Matthew Cock at the British Museum has opted for. The biggest challenge for him and his team must have been how to select a representative number of objects from such a vast collection. 'It wasn't easy,' he admits, 'but we've made sure that, out of 220 objects altogether, there is at least one in every room, so that no-one will be left looking at a space full of treasures with nothing in it on offer to learn more about.' These are multi-media guides, with some visual as well as aural prompts. I took one out for a trial run and thoroughly enjoyed being able to stand in front of a 14th-century gold cup, being told the story of the life of St Agnes as shown in a sort of exquisitely coloured enamel version of a comic strip around its rim, and then to be shown on my little screen a picture of the inside of the cup's lid and its bowl, which I couldn't otherwise have seen.

Since the launch of these guides in December last year, the British Museum has seen take-up almost double, which is impressive, as is the fact that they can be listened to in eleven different languages. For those with hearing difficulties there is a video version with sign language, and for the visually impaired there is a more extensive audio commentary and a specially designed handset.

Less tends to be more with these guides. You can only take in a certain amount of information at a time and fancy extras can very swiftly irritate. It's a mistake, for example, to add stock mood music - jangly mandolins for Venice, a reedy tenor singing Greensleeves for a portrait of Henry VIII - and you don't need a new voice to describe each exhibit.

The National Gallery has led the way by having its own iPhone app so that you can check out the collection before you even get there. But there's still a lot to be said for a less cutting-edge approach. At Parham House in Sussex you can listen to a slightly wobbly CD and hear the current chatelaine Emma Barnard, describing the rooms in an endearingly unscripted but loving and knowledgeable fashion, warning you not to trip over the carpet when she does so herself and occasionally introducing her aunt, Veronica Tritton, whose trenchant tones have survived her and whose pithy turns of phrase are an absolute joy.