Recently I was in Newport, Rhode Island, attending the New England Museum Association conference, and it was a few firsts for me–first time at NEMA, first time in Rhode Island. The conference was well attended, and we spoke with a few folks in that area about the possibility of producing and equipping an audio tour for their facilities.
The second day of the conference was a half day and, therefore, I had some time to see some of the sights of the area before returning back to Florida the next day. Newport is a pretty seaside town with a grand history of sailing, and everywhere you look you see the charm that New England is known for. It’s a very picturesque place, a quintessential New England town with colonial style architecture and many marinas.
So with my time off I decided to head out to a popular landmark, a true American castle. The 65,000 square foot summer home was built by a Gilded Age industrialist in the late 1800s, and it is quite an impressive structure. Nestled along Mansion Row, it is a marvel of Goût Rothschild architectural style along the cliffs of Newport, an area chosen by many wealthy families of the day to construct magnificent homes reflecting their status and wealth.
The house experience includes what we call in the audio tour industry a “Universal Tour.” This means that the price of the audio tour is included in admission; therefore, every visitor is given an audio guide. I always take the audio tour when offered–certainly for professional curiosity but also for the fact that, when done well, an audio tour offers a direct connection of the facility’s message to the visitor. I listen to and evaluate the complexity of the audio production. I marvel at the human stories that create the connection to the place. I like to think that, in our productions, we discern what the emotional goal of the tour, and by doing so, we craft a directional rudder for the narrative, one that engages the listeners and connects them with the place and space.
Sadly this tour did not.
After being fitted with my equipment I eagerly set out on my tour. I entered the Grand Hall and marveled at the architecture and accouterments that went along with the privilege and prestige of the grand families of the day. But as I journeyed I soon realized that I got very little sense of the people of the place. In room after room, the audio tour presented facts, pointed out artifacts, presented information on the exhibits–sadly the usual message in most audio tours: the “what.” But something was missing: the “who.” From my professional judgement, this is because the emotional goal of the project/script wasn’t considered when the tour script was written.
Who were the folks who took on the enormous task of creating such a palace? Why were they so possessed to do so? What was their personal story, and how does it connect to me and to my experience? Why should I care about this place and its people? Instead of being engaged in the human story, I felt like I was standing in a cavernous mausoleum to their lost presence. Quickly the tour lost me without any of this emotional connection to them, to it.
So I decided to not continue with the audio tour, took the red pill to check out of the Matrix, and removed my headset. I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I have to report here that–with the exception of seasonal guided tours–the audio tour is the primary interpretative tool for the facility. The visitor is handed a headset, and his expectation is that the audio tour is the entire experience–the interpretative “reason for the season.” Once I removed my headset, I wandered “off the path” in search of what I could find to satisfy my interest. No docents were present during my visit, so I proceeded by reading the sparse text on small stanchion plaques in the rooms.
Soon after I was set free from the stream, if you will, a managerial-type woman approached me and asked why I wasn’t taking the tour. I admitted to her that I didn’t care for it. She looked at me like I was a clock turning backwards and asked me why. I told her that my company produces audio tours and included some of the reasons above among a few others.
She looked quite puzzled. “But everyone loves the tour,” she said. “It won an award too.”
This may be true, but the decision-makers failed to realize how much better and more engaging it could have been. The production values could have more effectively immersed the listener into the space. The narration could have been sourced in an emotional goal that connects the listener to the people, owners and staff, who lived their life stories there. Without a connection to the human element, any tour–audio or guided–will fall flat and become boring. As is the case with all forms of media, the consumer can only take so many facts and so much data before he become disengaged from the experience.
Without an emotional connection, it’s a story of dates, facts, and things and not the story of the people who made them significant. The audio tour failed to inspire to a higher purpose. Nor did it fill the listener with the sense of a greater positive experience to take away. You may forget the words you heard but you don’t forget how they made you feel.
So that’s my American castle tour experience. Was I impressed by the shining edifice to Gilded Age society? Yes. But do I think my pilgrimage was worth the journey? Sadly, no.