Seeing through sound
A new approach to the audio tour
For the 2021–22 Jeffrey Smart exhibition we have taken a new approach to the traditional audio tour. Here we look at how our approach is evolving, and what we’ve learned along way.
The National Gallery’s Audio Tour & Learning web app was launched in March 2021 for the opening of Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London. While it followed a long tradition of self-guided audio tours, this was the Gallery’s first free ‘bring-your-own-device’ audio tour – a move influenced both by the COVID-19 pandemic and the general rise in the use of personal devices in gallery spaces. Feedback from this combined audio tour and learning resource tool pilot project was used to further develop the web app, and subsequent audio tours for Jeffrey Smart and the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony were launched in late 2021 and early 2022 respectively, each building upon the initial concept.
The Botticelli to Van Gogh audio tour experience covered highlights of the exhibition, with journalist and presenter Geraldine Doogue AO narrating an in-depth look at selected works, plus a selection of music curated by ABC Classic and the Gallery. The pieces of music were written in the same time, and as often as possible the in the same place that the artwork was made, allowing moments of delight where visitors could both see and hear 1700s Venice, for instance, while moving through the exhibition. The audio contextualised when and where the painting was created, offering new ways of seeing and experiencing these familiar masterpieces from the National Gallery, London.
The app itself changed a lot over the course of the exhibition, based on visitor feedback, staff observations of usage behaviour and anonymous usage analytics. A small team of staff were dedicated to the management of visitor engagement with the app, and worked directly with the public to assist with onboarding into the app at the entrance to the exhibition. The team’s secondary role was to collect direct feedback and to observe visitor behaviour for ways in which the app could be improved. With these comments and observations the Gallery’s Digital team were able to iteratively update the app through the course of the exhibition to improve overall accessibility and keep up with specific visitor needs.
Usage data collected during the exhibition shows that over 1 million minutes of audio were listened to between the app’s launch and the close of the exhibition. Beyond this time, direct engagement with the learning resource tool has continued. Looking deeper into the data, it becomes clear that most people listened to a mix of both music and audio narration during their visit to the exhibition.
“We worked closely with ABC Classic to get the right music for the artwork and the space. It really changed how I saw these famous old masters – paintings I’ve seen many times before – when I was also hearing the music of that era”
To create the subsequent audio experiences for Jeffrey Smart and the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, the app has undergone further development shaped by feedback and with consideration to future requirements. For Jeffrey Smart, in collaboration with Liquid Architecture, the Gallery incorporated musical works from cohort of artists who responded directly to ten of Smart’s iconic works. In creating an audio tour based around these abstract musical artistic responses, we were aiming to encourage visitors to engage with the art through multiple mediums and to use the audio as a gateway to interpret the paintings themselves. The ambiguity of Smart’s artworks, and his determination to offer little explanation, resonates with the abstract and experimental nature of this audio tour. The music pieces highlight different ways of seeing and experiencing these works and offer audiences new ways into familiar works.
Responding to the ten selected works were sound artists Martin Kay, YL Hooi, Annika Moses, James Rushford, and Alexandra Spence. Each of these artists produced two works in response to two paintings. The tour also includes narrated versions of the exhibition wall text for each artwork. This produced a tour with 32 stops, ten of which contain the unique musical element, denoted by a music note symbol on the tour landing page. During the first half of the exhibition statistical analysis showed that many visitors using the tour app were unaware of the differences between the stop types. One visitor's feedback indicated they were disappointed to find that the tour was only the wall text read aloud, clearly having missed the original musical stops.
To maximise the visibility of the musical stops updates were made to the audio tour app halfway through the exhibition’s run time. A short introductory section was added to the audio tour, allowing for explanation of the tour’s particular elements and unique features. Changes were made to the messaging of the audio tour, such as producing a postcard with details on how to access the tour that was available in the space, messaging within booking confirmation and ticket emails, and adding the musical note symbol to the wall labels of all relevant artworks in the audio tour. The effectiveness of these changes is still being tracked and will be taken on board to inform the development of future audio tours.
A major update to the app for Ceremony was the addition of a map, supporting the spread of works across the entire Gallery campus. This feature allows visitors to listen to audio stops grouped by location, as well as wayfind as they move beyond the main exhibition space. Further additions are being considered for upcoming projects and to expand the value of the app within the Gallery’s accessibility goals and aims for national relevance and reach.
With the recent launch of the Gallery’s new website the opportunity was taken to integrate the functionality of audio tours into the newly developed content management system for the main Gallery website, as well as the Gallery’s collection data management system. This allows for near-immediate updates to content and a streamlined system for developing app features that can be added on the fly. The app will continue to be developed in the coming iterations as the needs of exhibitions and visitors change, ensuring that the final product is versatile and flexible for continued effective use.
The audio aspect of the National Gallery’s Audio Tour and Learning web app has three main elements; real-time data and content integration, the opportunity for an avant-garde approach to audio, and an iterative approach to design and development. All of which is made easier, cheaper and faster by using web-based content delivery and a bring-your-own-device approach, as opposed to the iOS app and device rental fleet solution previously used.
ListenAll audio experiences
Audio Tour and Learning Resource: Botticelli to Van Gogh
Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London
Audio Tour, Learning Resource & Map: Ceremony
4th National Indigenous Art Triennial
11 Dec 2021 – 15 May 2022
Araluen Arts Centre, NT
25 Mar – 12 Jun 2023
5 Mar 2021—14 Jun 2021