Sunday, June 16, 2013

Audio Tours

One of the first places we visited during this field school was St. Mawes Castle in Cornwall. St. Mawes is often overshadowed by its sister castle Pendennis, partly as a result of accessibility (as we had to use a ferry to get to Mawes) and because much more history (and effort) is being interpreted in Pendennis. Both sites are run by English Heritage, but while St. Mawes primarily only focuses on the 16th century, Pendennis goes through the World Wars. Most people whom I have talked to prefer Pendennis, however Max (another student) and I both enjoyed St. Mawes more because we both liked its audio tour.

I think audio tours can be a great way to explore a site. They allow you to wonder around at your own pace and if a topic strikes your interest, you can chose to listen to more commentary. However as we have visited other sites, I have realized some drawbacks as well. Since St Mawes we have always said yes to any opportunity for audio tours, but I have found they so far have not been able to replicate the experience we first had.

 (An audio tour device that many sites use, this one is from St. Mawes. Simply select a number, press play, and hold it to your ear.)

Most recently we visited Whitby Abbey, a very nice site overlooking the North Sea. I eagerly started the audio tour, which as usual had much more information that any of the text panels and gave a more chronological order to events. However I was not able to listen to more than a fraction of the tour since the rest of the group whom had chosen not to use the audio tour wanted to move on. I therefore felt rushed and missed most of what I wanted to hear. It was later pointed out to me that I could have separated from the group and done my own thing, but I did not want to be left behind. I think my (and Max’s) experience at Whitby is representative of what other visitors could go through- the pressure of being rushed by their group. Therefore I believe audio tours are best when the site is relatively uncrowded and a visitor is willing to go it alone if only for the tour.

Another common problem that I even experienced at St. Mawes was getting lost. Some sites are better than others directing the way you are supposed to go, but I have always made at least a couple wrong turns. Since St. Mawes was a relatively small, uncrowded castle I was able to correct myself quickly, but in others I ended up just skipping ahead. At Whitby Abbey, I started down the wrong path going straight toward the abbey instead of taking a right turn away from the building (eventually circling back). The Rievaulx Abbey tour seemed even more confusing to me as the information desk gave me a map to find where to stand when listening to the tour. The American Museum also had audio tours, but I quickly stopped using it partially because I wondered into the rooms out of order and docents wanted to talk with me and were put off that I had a listening device to my ear most of the time.

Overall I think audio tours can work and be successful, but only under the correct circumstances. Several museums do not use them and I would not necessarily want them to since people seem to wonder all over the place from one exhibit to another. I think the tours are at their best for visitors who are willing to move at their own pace without a group pushing you along, and at a site that does a good job directing where you should wonder next (and preferably not too crowded!). 

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