Part I: How to Create Inspiring Museum Audio Guides with Jenna Madison.

In the July meeting of Museum Mindshare, our community gathered to discuss how to capture and hold visitor attention through museum audio guides. This month we’ll feature short interviews with some of our participants to share their advice and experiences in creating audio guides that engage and inspire.

Interview with Jenna Madison, Interpretive Specialist and Consultant:

Photo by iSAW Company

What is your favorite thing about creating audio guides?

Telling stories through a diversity of perspectives and voices. I believe that inclusion of non-traditional narratives and lesser known stories humanizes the content and makes it more relevant to twenty-first century audiences. I also love doing audio for kids, it is such a fun challenge to try to bring art works to life for young listeners.

What creative formats have you used for making audio guides?

I have worked on both traditional audio guides and podcasts. Podcasts are fun because they offer a deep dive and can be more irreverent and critical in terms of the content presented. They also allow you to tell more than one side of the story and include multi-vocal perspectives. Some of my favorite content has come out of working directly with artists and community. For a thematic playlist we did at MoMA, called Radical Acts, we talked to Lady Pink about being a woman in the 80’s NYC Graffiti scene which was really interesting. We also paired two working artists, one in their 40s and one in their 20s, to talk about Catherine Opie’s photograph Dyke, and their personal experiences with the word as lesbian/non-binary individuals, which was one of the most powerful and moving interviews I have ever conducted. I also produced an audio piece with the artist Chemi Rosado Seijo and a group of security officers foregrounding their experience as museum security staff. Many of the officers are artists and/or musicians in their “off duty” lives which informed their unique interpretations of the works they chose to talk about. As part of the production, they even formed a band together and produced an original sound track for the tour.

How do you measure the success of an audio guide?

I measure success of an audio program from listener feedback gathered through visitor research. But data analytics on take up rates and length of time spent listening is also a really good metric in determining whether or not the content resonates with your intended audiences.

What advice would you give to museum professionals making audio guides for the first time?

Find the best story!!! Encourage close looking and include unexpected content, like quotes from artists, funny anecdotes, behind the scenes information, post-colonial and feminist discourse, LGBTQ+ interpretations and non-art expert perspectives. Finally, always write with an eye toward the greatest accessibility across modalities, platforms, and language. Audio should be democratic so make sure you’re thinking about how best to engage the broadest possible audience and their different learning styles and interests (hint: it might not be art!).

Co-founder of Gesso, next-gen audio guides for cities + museums. Follow for latest insights on audio, museum tech, travel tech, and more.