The British Library is not the first “museum space” that pops into your mind if you’re a tourist in London. That honour probably goes to the British Museum or, if you’ve already exhausted that inexhaustible collection of wonder and plunder, the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Tate Modern.
In fact, Malini Roy says, many visitors actually confuse the British Library with the British Museum. Roy is curator of visual arts at the British Library and one of the brains behind a spectacular new exhibition that opened on 9 November called Mughal India: Art, Culture And Empire.
The exhibition is housed in the British Library’s main display space that is both cavernous and yet easy to miss. Visitors will be forgiven for thinking, on walking in through the main doors, that the library is nothing but a stack of reading rooms and cafés swarming with scholars and connoisseurs of free wireless Internet.
But in fact, turn left as you enter, slip in through the door by the bookshop and you walk into an Aladdin’s cave of Mughal delights. Included in Roy’s carefully curated collection of objects and manuscripts are copies of the Ain-i-Akbari, Sir Thomas Roe’s journal, the crown of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah II, and a mounted Mughal cavalryman on an armoured horse.
But what makes the exhibition really come alive is an excellent audio guide included in the ticket price that has extended commentary on 20 of the 200 or so objects on display. The guide, featuring Roy and other British Library staff, is richly produced and immersive. One or two objects into the tour and you already feel spatially isolated with the Mughals.
Audio guides help curators such as Roy and institutions such as the British Library achieve many things. From a visitor’s perspective it helps, primarily, with navigation of both space and subject. “I am the kind of person who usually just wanders around an exhibition without following any particular plan,” says Roy. For visitors like her, she says, audio guides help make sense of vast sprawling displays in which visitors can easily get lost, and overwhelmed.
Assume, for instance, that you are a visitor to The National Gallery in London or the Louvre in Paris. And that you’re armed with just the most casual understanding of art and art history. The rooms upon rooms of small and large canvases and sculpture can be quite dazzling. Perhaps the odd masterpiece like the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers will stand out. But most of the collection touches you in the same way that the art in an opulent hotel lobby might, superficially.
The obvious solution here is to go on a guided tour. But with economies struggling the world over, museums are slowly running out of the grants, donations and funds needed to employ battalions of tourist guides well versed in several languages. Instead, many opt for the convenience and scalability of audio tour devices.
Michelle Penn is storyteller-in-chief at Antenna International, one of the world’s largest producers of guides and interactive devices for museums and exhibitions. Penn has produced guides for prominent sites all over the world, from the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort.
I recently spoke to Penn at Antenna International offices in London, a busy warren of offices, editing stations and recording studios. Half of one long wall in the main office was stacked with CDs containing music samples from all over the world. These are the samples that give some of Antenna’s guides such an immersive feel.
Penn says museums and curators have never been more enthusiastic about using interactive devices. “In fact we have to sometimes hold them back from cramming in too many apps and games and videos into their guides,” she says. Penn says the challenge is to strike a balance, especially when portable multimedia devices, such as iPods and tablets, have become so versatile. Pack in too little content and visitors soon lose interest. Pack in too much and they spend time looking at and playing with the guide rather than the exhibit itself.
The perfect guide, Penn says, draws you into an exhibit and makes you more interested. “You could walk through an abbey or a small church in just 15 minutes if you wanted to. But a great audio guide can make you linger for hours.”
Guides, therefore, can convert even uninterested visitors into staying, thinking and investigating.
Roy adds one more aspect: deeper understanding. While many visitors use these guides to make sense of collections, more advanced users use them to delve deeper into particular objects. “They want to know more than what you can read on the labels. And use the guides to find out,” says Roy.
Therefore institutions such as the National Gallery in London or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York design their guides to be used in two ways. Either users can choose a themed tour or a “highlights tour” and follow an itinerary around the building. Or they can wander around and punch in numbers to listen to narration on any of thousands of objects.
But audio guides can be even more versatile. They work even when there is no institution involved.
Last year I went on a week-long trip to Rome armed with nothing more than a Lonely Planet guide to the city and a mobile phone full of podcasts, produced and narrated by Rick Steves, a best-selling American writer of travel guides.
"While you still need to tell good stories, you now also need to factor in other things."
Rome, of course, is one of the great tourist destinations in the world. Steves, however, made it an exceptionally memorable trip. The podcasts, meant to accompany his guidebooks, included general overviews of Rome, walking tours through areas such as the charming Trastevere district, and indoor tours of buildings such as St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Most of the audio files were accompanied with maps in PDF to help with navigation.
Best of all, the tours cost me nothing at all. The content was absolutely free and played on my mobile phone.
This type of self-guided tour is an even more affordable and democratic execution of the devices you see in many museums and galleries. Steves may not quite have the charm of an Italian guide gesticulating passionately under Michelangelo’s frescoes, but then he doesn’t get upset if you want to stop for a while and have a cup of tea, or take some photographs.
This year Steves has gone one step further and collated all his Europe tours into one iPhone app. No one should leave home without it.
Penn says, access to such cheap and flexible technology is making her job harder but also more fun. “This industry started off with people walking around with audio cassettes and tape players. Look at what you have today. While you still need to tell good stories, you now also need to factor in other things.” For instance, many visitors now download guides on to their personal devices and bring them to venues. At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, visitors can hook up their phones to a free Wi-Fi network and then access audio commentary on a MoMA website. “Also consumers have got used to rich multimedia. You can no longer have a nice voice actor rambling on about the Taj Mahal. You need music, video and interactivity. And this is so exciting.”
Audio guides, both free and paid ones, add texture and dimensions to a tourist destination. By allowing visitors to pace themselves and dwell only on what they want to, these devices and apps give control back to tourists who have been traditionally herded around by guides or flabbergasted by maps. At best they also reward institutions financially. At worst they make these institutions more accessible.
One little girl at the Mughal India exhibition at the British Library seemed engrossed in her guide. What do you like about it, I asked her.
“The music is really nice and peaceful,” she said, standing in the centre of the cave of delights.