Soundtracks provide the curatorial overview of the exhibition space, the tour’s narrative and raison d’être. As a story the soundtrack can stand alone, but it can also be annotated and enhanced by soundbites and links at relevant points along its timeline. It then lends context and continuity to the soundbites and links.
The Soundtrack provides tools for understanding key principles of the displays
The soundtrack helps me avoiding being blinded to the forest by the trees. When I walk into an exhibition space, the first thing I need is not to know when that painter was born and died; I need some conceptual orientation: where am I? What’s going on here? Why is all this stuff in this one place? What am I supposed to be taking away from it? And I’m not talking about the 2 minute Director’s ‘Welcome to the Exhibition’ either, in which the marketing blurb for the show is dryly reiterated. The visitors have already read that. They’ve bought the ticket or committed time to entering the gallery. Now give them the keys to unlock the magic. Help them see what the curator sees – the stories that connect and hold the displays in an electrifying web. Show them the sparks that fly when you put those artists in the same room. Explain the color of the walls; call their attention to how the installation inflects, seduces, and stimulates their vision. Give them the tools to understand and rediscover the display’s main concepts wherever they may go after the museum visit. After leaving a Picasso exhibition, I should have some understanding of not the Picassos that were in that show, but any Picasso I may encounter hereafter. I should understand why the exhibition’s scientific or historical concept is important, and read it in my everyday life.
The Soundtrack hooks audiences on-site and beyond
Maybe I’m in a hurry, or I only want to skim the surface of this exhibition at first before committing to in-depth information. The overview is ideal for the impatient visitor, packing meaning into a survey of a number of objects – and thereby increasing the chances of the visitor getting hooked on one and ending up staying longer to learn more. And especially if illustrated as a video or slideshow, the overview provides, through the web, access for all those non-visitors who’ll never be able to come to the museum in person: these number 3-10x more than the actual on-site visitors at most museums. Our websites are designed (I hope) to serve those who’ll never be able to visit us physically; why shouldn’t our mobile content also aim to achieve that broad a reach and return on investment – especially since now an increasing amount of our traditionally ‘fixed web’ activity, like email and web surfing, is done on a mobile device? The soundtrack should also be designed as a downloadable or fixed web tour exhibitions or collection, meaningful both off-site and in the gallery.
The Soundtrack is a story or a conversation that the visitor can join.
Ideally, the soundtrack is presented either as a rich narrative in which the visitors can immerse themselves, or as a dialogue that opens up a space for the visitor to join the conversation and form his or her own opinions. As has been discussed by Beth Harris & Steven Zucker of SmartHistory.org, the dialogue models how the experts acquire their knowledge, and is infinitely more engaging than the straight-forward lecture in which the visitor is positioned as the passive recipient of wisdom from on high. When used in strategic combination with links to interactive and social media functionality, the soundtrack can both trigger and capture visitor response, e.g. through voting or favoriting, or leaving comments as text (including tweets and emails) or voice (via cellphone, e.g.).
The Soundtrack may be divided into a number of connected segments.
Although it is much longer than a stop, the Soundtrack can be divided into a number of segments without ‘losing the plot’, because the presumption is that the segments are connected and read sequentially. One logical way of creating chapters or shorter segments from the Soundtrack, to facilitate download and podcasting, would be to divide the Soundtrack by room or gallery overviews. Alternatively the story may be divided thematically, as in an account of the story of American art by medium, period, or movement.
Hear Beth Harris, Richard McCoy, and Nancy Proctor working through the nature, content and structure of a gallery overview ‘soundtrack’ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the MuseumMobile podcast, “The Gallery Overview: An Experiment at the IMA” on 17 April, 2009.