Museum Guides for a Brave New World.

A helpful guide for museum professionals navigating the new world of self-guided exploration, touchless experiences, and immersive audio guides.

Photo by: Charles Deluvio

In a pre-Covid world, museum professionals didn’t have to worry as much about crowd control, usage of communal audio guide devices, or making sure digital experiences were just as exquisite as in-person exhibition viewing. However, much of this has now changed.

Museums are now considering many prerequisite conditions to reopen institutions to the public including social distancing measures between individuals while inside buildings, limiting physical contact while interacting with exhibitions, and making sure the museum experience can be easily accessible without worrying about sharing headsets or handheld devices.

With Gesso’s innovative technology, easily accessible audio guides available in multiple languages all live on one platform. Visitors can easily use their own mobile devices to enhance their museum experience, eliminating unnecessary health risks associated with sharing communal devices.

Karen Wong, Deputy Director of the New Museum, elaborates on some of the measures that the New Museum has in place to reopen,

“As we reimagine a socially-distanced and seamless visit for our audience, we turned to our audio guide designers, Gesso. We already have dozens of audio files in our Gesso x New Museum app which allow our visitors to hear short audio segments from the artists themselves. One of our goals is to ensure visitors don’t crowd around wall text, so they have added the wall labels to our app. Another pain point is museums often have maps (laminated cards) and Gesso has devised a way to integrate maps as well so that visitors can appreciate artwork in a contactless manner.”

In addition to physical safety measures for in-person museum experiences, museum professionals are now faced with the task of making sure that their exhibition audio guides meet high standards, allowing for an intimate and transportive experience even while physically distancing oneself.

How much potential does audio really have? A lot. Over the years, the world has developed a strong preference for listening. According to the 2020 Stitcher Podcasting Report, two words that sum up the past decade in podcast content are explosive growth. In 2019, Stitcher recorded over 200 million hours listened to podcasts and more than 129,000% growth in the number of podcasts published to the platform since 2010.

What do podcasts and exhibition audio guides have in common? People are craving exceptional, well-produced audio because storytelling when done right can be a magical experience. Robotic voices just aren’t going to cut it anymore.

We’ve watched museums adapt quickly to this realization. The International Center of Photography (ICP) now allows photographers’ stories from around the world to be heard with a click of a button. Museum professionals at the Queens Museum are recording audio right from their homes and sharing it directly with the public.

We know recording your own audio content can feel daunting but it shouldn’t, and just think about the end-result. Every in-person museumgoer or admirer from around the world who wants to experience an exhibition will have access to curators and artists themselves sharing stories, insights, and personal reflections about their work.

You don’t need a fancy studio, and you don’t need to hire an expensive audio production team. Recording remotely means you can record exceptional audio guides for your visitors right from your home and you don’t necessarily need a large budget. Our recommendation is to use Voice Memos, Audacity, and Garageband to get started, but if you’re interested in a more detailed list, check out our previous article.

In addition to equipment recommendations to help you create incredible audio guides for your museum’s exhibitions, we also want you to see how some of our partner institutions have put this advice into action:

Case Study: International Center of Photography

One of the International Center of Photography’s most recent exhibitions is #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis, which is on view from August 11, 2020 through December 31, 2020. The exhibition is a collection of photographs from around the world that were born out of an artistic desire to respond to recent worldwide events including global lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests using the hashtag #ICPConcerned on Instagram.

ICP asked photographers from various countries to reflect on their images and record their stories, which now live on the Gesso app. The photographers bring a wide range of emotions to the stories behind the photos- grief, hope, frustration, strength. The digital exhibition is a reminder that although we might be apart, together we can still understand our shared experiences in the hopes of creating a future built on empathy.

Here’s what the end result sounds like.

Photo by: Wanda van Bremen, @wandalice | #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis
Photo by: Wanda van Bremen, @wandalice | #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis
Photo by: Wanda von Bremen, @wandalice | #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis
Photography by Ester Segretto, @estersegrettophotography, part of #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis.
Photography by Ester Segretto, @estersegrettophotography, part of #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis.
Photo by: Ester Segretto, @estersegrettophotography | #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis
Photography by Anna Morales, @annamoralesphotography, part of the #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis exhibition.
Photography by Anna Morales, @annamoralesphotography, part of the #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis exhibition.
Photo by: Anna Morales, @annamoralesphotography | #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis
Photograph by Saam Gabbay, @saamgabbay, part of the #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis exhibition.
Photograph by Saam Gabbay, @saamgabbay, part of the #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis exhibition.
Photo by: Saam Gabbay, @saamgabbay | #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis

“Using Gesso for the exhibitions we opened at ICP in January 2020 allowed us to provide an audio guide experience that museum-goers could access from home and in our galleries. So, when we thought about ways to expand the online presence and accessibility of our new virtual exhibition, #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis, which grew out of a hashtag ICP launched in March to allow people to share responses to the pandemic, we knew audio should be an essential component.

We invited the photographers to record their own audio, most on their mobile devices, and Gesso took care of the rest! The photographers’ response to participate has been incredible! We’ve been adding about 20 new audio stories every two weeks, and will continue to grow the guide alongside the exhibition.

While still working remotely, Gesso’s platform allowed us to easily create an audio guide that added insight to the variety of experiences represented in the images and matched their intimate tone. Hearing directly from the diverse group of photographers around the world about what they were thinking and feeling at the time they clicked the shutter adds so much depth to the whole exhibition.”

-Sara Ickow, Curatorial Coordinator at the International Center of Photography

Case Study: Queens Museum

The Queens Museum recently recorded two exhibitions, Bruce Davidson: Outsider on the Inside and The Panorama of the City of New York, entirely remotely. Hear it for yourself.

Amy Raffel, Ph.D., Andrew W. Mellon Interpretation Research Fellow at the Queens Museum reflects on the experience,

“The Queens Museum has always wanted to make our exhibitions more accessible with audio content, and now, it’s easier than ever to produce audio tours without relying on expensive equipment. I’ve been able to create ours with just an iPhone and free editing software. Gesso has also played an important part in presenting this new material online, it’s an impressive platform.”

Case Study: The Cultural Services of the French Embassy

In addition to museums, we’ve also used our innovative, straightforward technology with other cultural groups as well including the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Over this past summer, we worked with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to create a virtual tour in honor of Bastille Day that highlights the deep bond between our two countries. These stories are told by Deputy Cultural Counselor Hervé Ferrage and Press Officer Mathilde Campergue, illuminating the long history of diplomacy, artistic collaboration, and mutual admiration between France and the United States.

Due to the challenges posed by COVID-19, we had to collaborate and create audio content for this tour remotely. You can listen to the virtual audio tour here.

Practice makes perfect, trust us. We all start out as beginners who make mistakes and learn from them, but that’s why we want to share our lessons with you especially as more and more museum professionals are finding themselves needing to quickly adapt to a touchless, socially distanced future.

Ready to reimagine museum storytelling? Check out our Museums page and contact us to get started.

Gesso is a Brooklyn-based tech and culture company known for its location-based audio experiences. Named after the priming layer of paint that must first be applied to a canvas before crafting a masterpiece, Gesso makes audio-first, geo-responsive digital guides that go under the surface of a city — presenting the world’s hidden gems through exclusive original content and official audio guides through the most innovative, forward-thinking cultural institutions.

Co-founder of Gesso, maker of audio walks through cities + museums. Follow for latest insights on audio, museum tech, travel, culture, and more. www.gesso.app