Preservation Leadership Forum is presenting a series of posts by Sarah Rovang, the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. The fellowship allows its recipients—recent graduates with advanced degrees or emerging scholars—to study by travel for one year, providing them with opportunities to see and experience architecture and landscapes firsthand; think about their profession deeply; and acquire knowledge that will be useful for their future work, for contributions to their field, and for contributions to society. For Preservation Leadership Forum, Rovang will examine the many facets of storytelling at industrial heritage sites across the world. For more about Rovang's work, read her posts on the SAH Blog, listen to her podcast, and follow her on Instagram @sarahmoderne.
In lieu of a traditional blog post, I am submitting an “audio post” in the form of a special podcast episode. The “Sundowners” podcast that my partner John Golden and I started in July 2018 has been a way to keep friends and family apprised of my Brooks Fellowship travel, and to workshop ideas that eventually make their way into this SAH blog series. You can access this month’s special episode by clicking the links below, or by searching for Sundowners wherever you typically download your podcasts. Below the links, you’ll find a edited transcript of the episode, including references and supplementary visual material.
John Golden: Hello, Sarah? Are you there?
Audio Guide Voice: You are now standing in front of the main factory gates, which date to 1924.
JG: Wait, what? Who is this?
Audio Guide Voice: Take note of the fanciful Art Deco ironwork and the elaborate filigree... (sound cuts out)
Sarah Rovang: Oh hey, John, sorry, I’m listening to an audio guide at this industrial site I’m visiting — the audio guide must have gotten mixed in with your call!
JG: Oh okay, that’s fine, why don’t you call me back when you’re done?
Intro Music: The Limiñanas, “Tigre du Bengale - Instr.,” The Limiñanas, Trouble In Mind Records, LLC, 2010.
Sarah Rovang: Hello, and welcome to a special episode of Sundowners: Storytelling with Audioguides. I’m Sarah Rovang, the Society of Architectural Historian’s 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow. This podcast episode has been produced as part of a series of blog posts I’m writing for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. This series examines aspects of public history storytelling within the context of the many industrial heritage sites I’ve visited over the past year. And as usual on this podcast, I’m joined by my spouse and sometime traveling companion, John Golden. Hi, John.
John Golden: Hi, Sarah. It’s good to be here. I had the opportunity to travel with Sarah during the first half of her travels in 2018 in South Africa, Japan, and Chile.
SR: We touched on the role of audio guides a bit in the special two-part podcast on industrial heritage soundscapes that I created for the Society of Architectural Historians, but I think it’s an aspect of museums and heritage sites that could really use some further unpacking.
JG: You and I occasionally downloaded or rented audioguides while we were traveling together last year, but I understand that since you’ve been traveling on your own, you’ve been making greater use of audio guides provided by museums and heritage sites.
SR: Yeah, since I’ve been traveling in Europe by myself this year, I’ve really enjoyed trying out different audio guide platforms.
JG: Were there any that stood out as being particularly interesting or effective?
SR: Definitely. I was actually thinking I could run through some of the highlights from my Europe tour so far, and then we could talk more generally about what made those experiences so effective.
JG: That sounds great.
SR: And I actually want to start with the same site that we talked a little bit about in the SAH podcast we recorded.
JG: That was that coal mine in Belgium, right?
SR: Yeah, exactly. Back in February I made a journey to the coal mining landscape of Wollonia in Southern Belgium. Here, four nineteenth-century coal mines share a UNESCO inscription. Upon arriving at the Bois du Cazier, a mine about one and a half hours South of Brussels, I picked up an audio guide.
JG: I imagine that by this point in your stint as the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow, you’ve listened to your fair share of audio guides in all kinds of industrial heritage places.
SR: Yes, and I’ve heard a lot of different approaches. This audio guide though was a little different. Instead of the omniscient third-person narrator, you know, the one who sounds like this...
Audio Guide Voice: On your left, you will see the remnants of a 1895 coal shaft. Note in particular the craftsmanship of the Flemish brickwork.
SR: Instead of that, this one featured two voice actors, playing the roles of Luigi and Monica—a former coal miner and his sister. It was an interesting idea and surprisingly effective. In the story created by the guide, the character of Luigi was returning to the site for the first time since a tragic accident in 1956. This catastrophic event claimed the lives of over 250 miners at the sites, many of them Italian immigrants like Luigi and his family. The first few stops on the audio guide feature Luigi reacting to the site’s transformation from working mine to touristified industrial heritage site.
Audio Guide Voice: It’s quiet now... you can hear the birds chirping. It’s so peaceful, and so nice. How will people ever know what the mine was actually like? How will they know what that day was like... the day of the accident?
Sound Clip: Birdsong at the Bois du Cazier Slag Heap, Bois du Cazier UNESCO Site, Belgium, February 27, 2019.
SR: This commentary was some of the first that I’ve heard to acknowledge how industrial places change once they are transformed from active, working sites into curated heritage sites for public use. Beyond that, the audioguide addressed the idea that this transformation is not limited purely to the visual component, but to the complete sensory experience.
JG: And it sounds like it actually tried to create an emotional connection between the listener and the structures and objects at the site.
SR: Exactly. These two fictional characters gave the listening audience someone to connect with. Rather than having a broad or general history being presented by an impartial narrator, it was helpful to have a unique and personal story to follow.
JG: Using a conversation between characters like that to frame the tour sounds really smart — I’m surprised I haven’t experienced something like that at a museum myself. Was this the only place you had a guide like this?
SR: No, actually — a few days after I visited the Bois du Cazier, I went to see the Grand Hornu, which is another of these four UNESCO Belgian mining sites. The audio guide there also used voice actors playing historical characters to create a unique connection to the site.
JG: How did that work?
SR: Well, the Grand Hornu used an interesting mix of the omnipotent third-person narrator and actors portraying historical characters from the nineteenth century, including the owner and founder of the mine, Henri De Gorge.
JG: Interesting — I guess it’s good to have the perspective of the mine owner, but I like that the Bois du Cazier focused on stories of working folk. Gets around the “great man” narrative.
SR: Ah, but that was the clever part — the audio guide was structured around Mister De Gorge encountering other people with different ideas and viewpoints. One of these people was a lawyer with socialist tendencies who was helping the workers organize and advocate for themselves. In the course of the audio guide’s narrative, the owner and the lawyer also encounter the wife of one of the miners, who claims that she is very happy with their company-provided house and other amenities provided on site.
JG: But that’s what she would say though right, in front of the factory owner?
SR: Exactly, and the character of the lawyer says as much, he tells De Gorge very plainly that he’s not going to hear the truth directly from his employees, since they want to keep their homes and jobs.
JG: So by hearing from a variety of characters, the audio guide user could really understand both what made this site architecturally unique, and some elements of the social landscape as well.
SR: Yes, it was a smart way to acknowledge historical tensions between labor and management and the fact that multiple, subjective stories can be told on the same site.
JG: What are some other audioguides that have really stood out for you recently?
SR: I thought the one at the Faguswerk in Alfeld, Germany was also very effective. Although the audio guide was narrated in a more traditional mode, the audioguide came on a multimedia device that could be used to show historical images and archival material pertinent to the current point of interest. And there was just the right amount of material that I felt like I wasn’t being distracted from the building in front of me.
JG: Because that’s the downside of audioguides, right? When they work well, they help you to better understand what you’re looking at and to actually be more in the moment, but when they fail, either due to technological issues or to poor or outdated scripting, they can cause a lot of distraction and frustration.
SR: That’s right. You end up focusing on the audioguide rather than being present with the architecture and objects at a site.
JG: But it seems like there is tremendous potential using audioguides today, especially with the rise of smartphones.
SR: Exactly, when you think back to the 1950s when audio tours first started appearing in museums, it’s pretty impressive to consider how far we’ve come. You’re no longer stuck listening to a looping commentary that can only be accessed in certain parts of the museum, new technologies have really changed how and where we can use audioguides. Audioguides can be quite cumbersome and difficult to deal with, or they can be quite liberating.
JG: When you and I were traveling together, we took a lot of guided tours of different sites, and occasionally paid for private guides or walking tours. So, I’m wondering: given the choice, would you ever opt for an audioguide over a tour with a real person?
SR: Well I think they are kind of two fundamentally different experiences. I’d say the least successful audioguides I’ve experienced are those that basically are trying to replace a human guide. I think that when an audioguide is well done, it offers a different set of potentials and possibilities than an in-person tour.
JG: Interesting — like what?
SR: Well perhaps the most obvious thing is allowing for self-directed pacing and taking breaks.
JG: Yeah, you can’t really interrupt a group tour and ask for everyone else to pause so you can have lunch.
SR: I was at the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans in May, and the audio guide there had a great series of optional bonus tracks that gave additional historical information about the site. But if you were in a rush, you could choose to just listen to the core tracks.
JG: So basically you can tailor the amount of information you’re receiving to your interests and time constraints.
SR: And I think that’s pretty true of most audioguides.
JG: Besides more freedom, what else do you think makes audioguides unique?
SR: Well in the examples I discussed above, it’s a way to bring different voices and characters to a site, another way to make that site come alive.
JG: I guess kind of like you might see at a living history museum, or a tour featuring costumed actors?
SR: Yes, though after the initial startup cost, the audioguide is a much less expensive option for the institutions involved.
JG: So it seems like audioguides can be good at providing a kind of unique, overarching narrative about a site—that they can give context and meaning to the site as a whole in a pretty unique way. But I’m wondering about specific objects or structures—are there potential advantages to an audioguide over just having a plaque or wall label? Why would you want to hear about an item rather than read about it?
SR: Well again, I think that successful audioguides try to do something unique rather than just duplicate available information in a different medium. So I don’t think an audioguide should just be a spoken word version of a wall label.
JG: Though I imagine there might be some exceptions when it comes to making an exhibition accessible in a different language, or to visually-impaired visitors.
SR: Absolutely, that being said, however, I have found that the most dynamic audioguides do substantively engage with the objects or buildings at a museum or historic site.
JG: That makes sense.
SR: Yeah, actually while I was in Belgium visiting the coal mines, I went to the House of European History in Brussels. It’s a unique institution in that its permanent exhibition is entirely devoid of interpretive text. In order to make the museum accessible in every single European language, every visitor receives a tablet with an audioguide that conducts them through the spaces of the museum.
JG: That sounds a bit complicated.
SR: It was a brilliant idea, really — but what frustrated me about the whole experience was that the audio guide was really just a narration of historic events and themes. You’d be standing there looking at some really incredible original documents or artifacts, and while you’re examining those things, you’re hearing a pretty general history of World War I, for instance.
JG: Sounds kind of like going to a play with an amazing set design but no actors—just voices acting out the play over loudspeakers.
SR: Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. There just seemed to be a disjunction between the material contents of the museum and the narrative being told in the audioguide. It seemed like a missed opportunity to use the objects as a critical part of telling that story. You know — tell me what I’m looking at and why it’s important, and then give me the historic context.
JG: So that was at a history museum. Your research during this fellowship has been focused on industrial heritage sites. Do you see any special challenges for creating audioguides for those industrial sites you’ve been visiting?
SR: Absolutely — I’d say that there are a couple of unique challenges for creating audioguides for industrial heritage sites. The first one is scale; many former industrial places are quite large and just walking from point to point takes a significant amount of time.
JG: So I guess their audioguides also have to be really clear about how to get to the next point?
SR: Yeah, and sometimes the landmarks are not instantly recognizable to a non-specialist. So while in an art museum, you can usually do something like this.
Voiceover: Turn around, and approach the painting of a pastoral landscape on the opposite wall.
SR: An equivalent direction at an industrial site might sound like:
Voiceover: Head half a kilometer east, past the coal washery and towards the blast furnace. Pause next to the cooling towers.
JG: Yikes, that is a bit overwhelming. I’m betting that the average visitor might not know what a blast furnace looks like. What would be better a better way to convey this information?
SR: Maybe something like this:
Voiceover: Turn back the way you came from the entrance. See the two large conical structures in the distance? Those are the cooling towers. Follow the marked path until you’re right in front of them.
JG: That does sound better. It relies only on what the visitor definitely already knows or can figure out from contextual clues.
SR: The other big challenge for industrial heritage places is addressing the technological aspects or production methods of the site while not getting too bogged down in technical detail.
JG: Sure — you want to be comprehensive but not overwhelming.
SR: And I think a good way to do that is to start with the social or human aspects of the story that are important at the site, and build the audioguide narrative from there, incorporating technical details where relevant. Going back to the example of the Bois du Cazier guide, the details of the coal mining process emerged naturally through the conversation between the two siblings.
JG: I know that you’re interested in pursuing museum work after your year of traveling is finished. I’m curious, based on your experience listening to dozens of audioguides all over the world, what are your big takeaways? If you were asked to create an audioguide for a historic site, let’s say, what are some things that you would really make sure to do or include?
SR: Those are great questions. I think there are lots of smaller, pragmatic observations I’ve made — for example, keeping individual audio clips relatively short, maybe to 90 seconds or so. But I think there are two overarching lessons that I’ll try to take with me moving forward. The first is to start with what makes the historic place unique.
JG: Sure, that makes sense, particularly in the context of industrial heritage places. You don’t just want your visitors to understand, let’s say, cotton mills in general, but what makes the individual cotton mill that they’re exploring with the audio guide unique.
SR: Exactly, so the more that the audioguide can reference the particular history of the site, and engage the singular material and architectural features of the place, the more memorable the experience will be.
JG: And second?
SR: Second, I want to remember the experience of the embodied visitor moving through space. In other words, keep in mind that the visitor isn’t just a set of disembodied eyes and ears, but a whole being. It’s not just about hearing some information in some isolated locations around a heritage site, but the holistic experience of the visit.
JG: I would imagine that that awareness would help you anticipate any number of possibilities, like, what if your site is mostly outdoors and it’s raining? Is it still possible to follow the audio tour?
SR: Or, what it is like getting around the site in a wheelchair? How does that effect the audioguide experience?
JG: Or, is doing the whole tour so long that some people might need to take a rest or have a snack part way through? Is there a good place nearby in the tour for them to do that?
SR: Exactly. This is certainly an area of visitor experience where using universal design is really important. It needs to be customizable and accessible from the outset.
JG: Okay, last question: I mentioned in passing at the beginning of the show that we didn’t frequently rent or download a lot of audioguides when we were traveling together. I think both of us felt like we’d rather be talking to each other about the experience that we were having, instead of each having a headset and sort of feeling isolated. I guess what I’m trying to say is that audioguides tend to be very individual experiences — you put the headphones on and then you explore the exhibition or the historic site in silence. How do you think audioguides could become more participatory and interactive?
SR: I think that’s the real challenge. Maybe that’s the next major frontier for audioguides. I’d love to hear an audioguide that’s designed specifically for people traveling as part of a couple, a family, or some other kind of group.
JG: So maybe it prompts you to share information with your traveling companions or tries to provoke a discussion?
SR: Yeah, an audioguide that actually asks you to take off your headphones for a bit and talk to the people around you. How revolutionary would that be! A lot of museums already make separate audio guides oriented towards younger visitors—there seems like there’s a lot of potential to even further customize the experience to foster different kinds of conversations at a historic site or museum.
JG: Well, speaking of conversations, it’s been great talking with you about audio guides.
SR: This will likely be our penultimate podcast as I’m just about to wrap up my fellowship year. Our last episode will be a big roundup of the year and an opportunity to reflect back on the many experiences I’ve had as the Society of Architectural Historians H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow.
JG: Thanks for listening. As always, our theme music is by the Limiñanas.
SR: Happy trails, listeners.
Sarah Rovang is an architectural historian, curator, and educator specializing in 20th-century American architecture with particular attention to technology, modernization, and the rural landscape.