Last week, some colleagues and I went to the MFA to see their “Degas and the Nude” show and to try out the multimedia guide MFA produced for the show. Sandy Goldberg, who developed the content for the tour, has waxed poetic about it for months. Phil Getchell, MFA’s outgoing head of IT, told me it was “quite good.” He’s from Maine, and prone to understatement. So, off we went. The exhibition is stunning. If you’re looking for a straight up review of the exhibition itself, try the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, or Wall Street Journal. But I was really more interested in the opportunity to see what a good, traditional mobile tour experience is like in the post Acoustiguide/Antenna world. And it looks pretty good!
First, a bit of prehistory. As part of their expansion last year, MFA rolled out what I think is still the world’s-largest homegrown multimedia tour. When the Art of the Americas wing opened, there was a fleet of 700 iPod Touch players running a 150+ stop tour of the Art of the Americas and the permanent collections, built on top of IMA’s open-source TAP platform. MFA contracted with Vienna-based NOUS-Guide for launching the tour, but have kept a remarkably large chunk of the work in-house.
Since then, they’ve been steadily adding to it, and launching smaller tours for special exhibitions. All this with a pretty small staff, and some long-time outside collaborators. “Degas and the Nude” is the latest tour to launch and it seems that largely “going it alone” has not hurt MFA at all, quite the contrary. They seem to be more proof that you can produce mobile tours that look just as slick as the bespoke ones, using open source tools and (mostly) in-house expertise.
An aside about celebrity narrators in the new media age
The immediate impetus for my visit was all the buzz in the Twittersphere surrounding the launch of the tour generated by the tour’s narrator, Boston-based singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer. A former figure model, and living statue/busker herself, Palmer was an inspired choice for a “celebrity” narrator for an exhibition of images of nude women, and something of a bold move for an institution like the MFA. Palmer’s work with The Dresden Dolls, Evelyn Evelyn, and her solo career, is nothing if not edgy. (Disclaimer: I’m a fan, verging on fanboy. She’s an amazing performer.) Check out the Dresden Doll’s Coin-Operated Boy, and Amanda Palmer & The Young Punx’ Map of Tasmania (totally NSFW) for an idea.
Having her as the “voice” of a Degas exhibition seemed like it could be a wonderful juxtaposition. She is also a fierce advocate of the power of social media, using Facebook and Twitter to carve out a successful music career free of the record label treadmill that wears down so many modern musicians. She lives and breathes online, announcing impromptu shows via tweets, crowdsourcing the funding of new albums, etc… She’s a very busy, very digital, woman. She’s also recently married to another celebrity who is a new media titan, best-selling author Neil Gaiman of Sandman, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book fame. (Disclaimer: I’m also a fan.) Between them, they have over 2 million Twitter followers and at least another half-million Facebook friends. New media celebrity looks very different from old-fashioned celebrity. And different things happen.
Working in this world means that the project got all kinds of unanticipated exposure. Months before the tour launched, a couple million people on Twitter knew Palmer was recording her narration, because she posted pictures. When she and Gaiman had their private tour of the exhibition just before the public opening, she caused a minor blizzard of Tweets when she asked if it’d be all right if she disrobed in the gallery so Gaiman could sketch her. Just another day working at the Museum, covering up security cameras and trying to look … natural? I’d give my eye teeth to have been there, just to listen in on the conversations, “She wants to what?! Here?” “Well, I suppose… Why not?” I love the way that crazy events like this unfold so effortlessly in museum work. I should do a collection of stories on the theme of “Bizarre Things I Have Had to Do As Part of My Museum Job.” Got any submissions?
Anyway, the thing I think worth considering is that working with partners who “get” new media and social engagement means that the MFA generated more awareness of the exhibition and guide without really doing anything than a team of “social media strategists” could probably manage in a year.
And now back to our story
So Phil and Katie Packard graciously gave us the busman’s tour of MFA’s multimedia tour operations. I will never complain about the cable mess on my desk again, promise! I should’ve taken pictures of the closet with all the racks of units plugged into an array of Mac Minis. There was more USB cabling than you’d ever want to see, let alone plug in and unplug. And the kluges that come with any DIY operation, like the USB plugs that were just too big and had to have a corner shaved off with a knife, by hand, for each plug… And there are how many units in the Museum’s fleet?
As Peter Samis predicted in his Tate Handheld talk last fall, museums now have the freedom (and the work that comes with freedom) to parcel out mobile tour development in chunks, based on their capabilities and needs. MFA contracted with an outside content developer to write the script, used in-house people build the TAP-based app, worked with NOUS-Guide to get the app onto iPods and push content out as it was done, and used NOUS-Guide’s custom sleeve to protect the units. They have a mono earpiece built into a bright red lanyard that holds the unit. It’s not as flashy as the neon yellow ones SFMOMA uses, but they’re easy to see. Having the earpiece cable travel through a sleeve in the lanyard is a little bit of design brilliance. It keeps the cable clutter down tremendously. I didn’t get tangled in my headset once, which I think is a first. I also found that the mono headset worked really well for letting me both listen to the tour and listen to my friends when we wanted to talk.
Snobby stereophile Ed gets his comeuppance
I will confess that when I first saw the single earpiece, I gave an internal shudder. I came up in audiotours, mostly working with Antenna, and a high-quality, lovingly crafted stereo soundscape was a signature of their products. And I’ve remained convinced that stereo is better, most of the time. However, on the Degas tour, the lack of stereo didn’t bother me at all. If anything, I found that it made it feel as if the narrators were standing right next to me, talking into my left ear as we walked around the gallery together. I could hear just fine, even in crowded rooms, and I felt more “there” and less in my own sonic cocoon. Live and learn.
Short tour with snacks
For a separate charge show, the Degas tour is pretty short, fifteen stops. Each stop lets you listen, or look at the transcript, and many have additional audio or video. I enjoyed the videos particularly, since they focused on demonstrating processes that Degas used. I now know how a monotype is made, among other things. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t getting enough tour, which had me puzzled. For any tour we’ve ever evaluated in past, the main things visitors said was, “I wish there were more stops,” regardless of how many stops were on the tour. So why did fifteen seem OK to me? I think at least partly it was because the player comes with the permanent collections tour and whatever the temporary show du jour happens to be. Which is a distribution model that I like a lot. It makes the temporary show seem more part of the overall museum experience, and less a completely separate entity. And when you own the players and the means of production of new content, you can do that.
All in the family
Another aspect of the tour I appreciated was the extent to which MFA was able to keep the experience centered on Museum assets. Almost all the other voices and faces that appeared in the tour were drawn from the MFA and its school. Listening to a figure model talk about what’s going through her head while she’s standing naked in front of a room of SFMA students made all sorts of connections between the century-old sketches I was looking at and the modern world. Watching a SFMA printmaker whip out a monotype was both illustrative in its own right, and reminded me that people still do what Degas did. It put him back into a tradition that lives on today.
So in a nutshell…
It was a great, straightforward mobile tour experience. The script was dynamite, loaded with insights into Degas and his art that complimented the label text without repeating it. The narration was good. Palmer’s not a professional narrator, and it shows sometimes, but it worked for me. Her narration, juxtaposed with curator George Shackleford’s foray’s into the world and mind of Degas, made me feel like I was hanging with two interesting people who knew a lot more about Degas than I did. The interface worked 98% of the time. We got hung up on an audio clip that we thought must have video with it, but otherwise it performed as expected. All three of us wound up seeking out all the stops, and later as we whizzed through the American art wing, we took advantage of the fact that our players had the permanent collection on them to listen to a couple of stops.
This Wednesday, at the next Boston Museum Tech meetup, I will have to buy a drink for any of folks who worked on the tour and congratulate them.