journal of museums aotearoa
Since September 2006 I have recorded the stories of curators, educators and directors, an Interpol agent, a criminologist, zoologists, mathematicians, astronomers, marine biologists and historians ( figure 1 ). As well as broadcasting these stories, I’ve made them available as audio files on the internet as podcasts. Podcasting has a lot of potential for museums, large and small, to not only tell their stories, but to experiment with what sort of voice they would like to use in order to capture the heart and ears of their virtual visitors. This article is designed to provide you with some technical insights and I highlight 10 different ways that museum could structure their podcasts.
The number of virtual museum visitors will soon be larger than the number of actual visitors; in some museums such as the Uffizi, this is already the case. So the time has come for museums to communicate those themes and ideas that have traditionally been expressed in exhibitions via other forms of digital media – naturally these new media include podcasting.
MUSEUMS AND PODCASTING
Podcasting is broadcasting over the World-Wide Web. A podcast is an audio or video file that listeners can listen to on a web page, download onto a portable device (like an iPod or other mp3 player), or subscribe to using a program like iTunes so episodes are delivered automatically to your computer. The people who subscribe to your podcast form what is often called a ‘community of listeners’, because they can leave comments on the website that supports the podcast and offer suggestions for future episodes; they are loyal, and spread the word about good programmes. In some instances listeners may link from their own website to yours. For example, in an interview with Roger Fyfe from Canterbury Museum we talked about an arctic kayak and, lo and behold!, kayak enthusiast associations linked to that episode. Again, an interview with Ricardo Palma from Te Papa about lice, John Marris from the entomology collection at Lincoln University and Simon Pollard, our spider expert from Canterbury Museum, drew attention and links from entomologists in the USA. Podcasts connect with a younger, non-traditional museum audience that grew up with the internet.
The advantage of podcasts compared to radio is their flexibility; you can listen to them any time, and anywhere. Listeners can subscribe for free, they are inexpensive to produce, and almost anyone can become a podcaster – it is not necessary to be a ‘radio person’, as podcasters usually have day jobs, around which they fit interviewing, editing, production, and marketing.
Working with a community radio station is one way to get started. You can borrow their recording equipment, they have in-house sound engineers and producers to offer advice, you can use their sound editing software, they have an existing audience for you to tap into, they pay an annual copyright licence for music, and you get to work with and meet other broadcasters. In return, you can offer the radio station a new programme with great subject matter, and scope for further collaboration with your museum. I started off with six episodes – keeping it manageable makes the project less scary.
On the other hand, there is nothing like first-hand experience. Trial and error is the best way to learn. Indeed mistakes have been made – from technical glitches often necessitating the interview to be done twice. I have also made other mistakes, namely not being sufficiently prepared for the interview. But most storytellers are very patient and they want the interview to go well too!
The most memorable technical drama occurred on my first field trip alone without sound engineer and web support - the technology failed. In mid-interview the digital recorder simply crashed. I spent hours in the Rock Shop in Wellington trying to figure out what was causing the problem. Was it the digital recorder or the disc? Was it the microphone? The puzzle was never completely solved (but I suspect that it was the data disc) but, just in case, I reformat the digital recorder on a regular basis, and it has not crashed since.
Don’t skimp on recording equipment. I use a M-Audio Microtrak 2496 digital recorder (NZ$899) with a 4GB compact flash card (depending on brand, prices start from NZ$51.95). I have also used an iPod Nano (8 GB; NZ$329) with a plug-in Belkin microphone (TuneTalk NZ$119.95) (which is very easy to use but with lower audio quality than the M-Audio), and a Sony minidisc recorder (I did not like the interface and they have been replaced by the easier-to-use digital recorders). For sound editing software, I have used GarageBand (for Macs this comes with the Mac as part of the iLife suite; NZ$109), Adobe Audition (for Windows; NZ$663.75) and Audacity (a free open-source program that works on both Windows and Macs; http://audacity.sourceforge.net). I prefer Audacity but do use GarageBand’s sound effects.
Now into my second year of broadcasting, I am interested in learning more about the sound engineering side of things. I tend to use the T-bar microphone that comes with the M-Audio – it is small and does not scare the Museum Detective interviewees ( figure 2 ). I also have a RodeNT4 stereo microphone for voice-overs (NZ$999); this microphone records best in studio-like environments but not for capturing that ‘ambience’ of being out there in the field. A mono (traditional) microphone is better suited to recording conversations on the exhibition floor.
TEN WAYS MUSEUMS COULD PODCAST
Here are some themes and approaches to pod-casting,any one of which could readily form part of a beginner museum’s podcasting menu. I supply links to useful examples.
1. “Why do museums collect things?”
This is a common question from museum visitors, museum administrators and elected Councillors.
Cool Things in the Collection, Kansas Museum of History
This is an excellent example of how to highlight items from your collection without the need for people to actually see the object. For any museum considering taking the leap into podcasting, I would start here: it is an excellent way to situate specific museum objects within a broader historical framework. My favourite Cool Things episodes from the Kansas Museum of History are ‘Fallout Food’ and ‘Mickey Mouse Undies’.
2. Audio tours of the museum building, site or exhibition
Some museum visitors like to take a tour around museums, while others prefer being self-guided. To date producing audio tour guides has been expensive in terms of staff time and technology. With the rapid uptake of personal mp3 players, including mobile telephones, many museum visitors will be able to download their audio tour from your website before their visit, or from the visitor reception desk.
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery audio tours
Professionally produced (meaning expensive), yes, but these are superb examples and you should use them as a springboard if you are thinking about producing audio tours for your museum. I visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1998 and listening to the audio tours brought back the experience of ‘being there’.
3. Big ideas
People like information especially if it is conveyed in an appropriate way. Adopting a storytelling approach (akin to talking to your neighbour over the garden fence) is more palatable than trying to fit everything on labels and wall panels.
This is a bi-weekly discussion about how digital media and technology shape learning, teaching, research and scholarship at universities, libraries, and museums. While these episodes are quite long (50 minutes) it is good to listen in to a conversation between three competent digital historians who are technologically savvy. Episode 14, on what’s wrong with museum websites is particularly good.
In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg
The guests here are university professors and museum experts, the host speaks very quickly and the topics are highbrow, but somehow you can follow the discussions that range from Indian mathematics, Karl Popper and the Opium Wars. Big ideas are discussed but there is also room for some dry humour.
4. Educational resources
Educational podcasts have great potential in the museum sector. Museum educators could record pre- or post-visit organisers such as stories that feature a museum object or relate to a curriculum theme, or provide exhibitionsummaries.
These short (4 – 8 minutes) educational episodes designed to teach you about grammar in a very friendly way. Grammar Girl has become a vital teaching resource for both school and university students.
Concise biographical narratives (albeit a little dry) come in episodes ranging from 5 – 15 minutes. This would be a good way to tackle educational podcasts based on museum research.
5. Current debates
This is a perfect opportunity to engage in contemporary debates and ‘thorny’ issues that relate to the work of
We are offered monthly espionage stories from the International Spy Museum. Conversations tend to feature ex-spies who have written books about catching spies or consultancy work they have done for producers of spy movies. I love the theme music.
Current Science and Technology Podcast
Perky science talks are presented by the Boston Museum of Science. The hosts have sound scientific knowledge, they have good rapport, and importantly feature topics that are current.
This is another undeveloped area in the museum sector, especially the larger museums that have in-house production studios. Museums have the potential to produce quality feature documentaries that highlight research undertaken by staff or experts in related fields; this could be a collaborative enterprise with documentary producers, narrators and subject experts. Audio documentaries are much cheaper to produce than video.
This American Life
I do not expect first-time podcasters to do as well as this, the best radio show in America, but the underlying structure whereby one topic is explored from different angles is well worthy taking on. The music interludes add to the sense of drama.
7. Interviews from the field
Imagine a museum-related podcast that features the real voices from the museum floor – security guards, museum guides, volunteers, museum visitors, children, families, tourists, researchers.
Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase
Betty’s stories simply make you want to be an airline steward. Betty interviews anonymous airline stewards and pilots and focuses on the quirkier aspects of aeroplane life. A similar museum-based podcast would work if you could keep the marketing department out of it.
8. Open access to your museum’s audio archives
Transferring files from analogue to digital format costs money but the payoff is opening up access to your audio archives for web-based visitors.
Remember, museum radio broadcasts are not new. These episodes from the 1950s simply ooze with the drama that only Orson Welles can produce. Each episode features a museum object supported by a dramatic story.
9. Public lectures and debates
This method is the simplest and quickest form of podcasting available to museums. Public lectures and debates are easy to record and upload to your website.
American Radio Works, Word for Word
One episode features Stephanie Coontz, who has written a book on the subject of marriage through the ages, with an entertaining and educational lecture style.
10. “Why do museums do research?”
See our first question, why do museums collect things? If we can’t answer either of these, then it’s time to close up shop.
Only two episodes so far, but they are both nice gritty stories about ‘doing history’.
Te Ara - Journal of Museums Aotearoa; Volume 32; Issue 1 & 2; December 2007
Figure 1. The Museum Detective recording her voice breaks. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: HAMISH DOAKE, JOURNALIST/PRODUCER PLAINSFM
Figure 2. Using M-Audio on location. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOANNA COBLEY
Figure 3. Screenshot of sound editing on Audacity (screenshot)
LAST UPDATED: 28/06/2010