Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production

By Peter Samis

Once upon a time there was Audio Tour Company A, and Audio Tour Company AA, and they pretty much ruled the roost. Their business model was sound: Help museums communicate with their visitors by telling stories that connect people with specific objects and broader themes. This was at a time when professional audio expertise—writing for the ear rather than the page; directing and recording voice talent; cutting in expert voices; and adding a pinch of sound design panache—was especially hard to come by, long before any museums thought of themselves as media producers. Why this was way back… five years ago!

These companies thrived on the interpretation of two types of exhibitions: blockbuster, popular crowd-pleasers on which they made their nut; and permanent collection shows, which were loss-leaders and cost their museum clients real money to make. (How many stops did you say you wanted? And would you like a family tour with that?)

Companies such as our two ur-entities also duplicated the tapes (remember the Walkman?) or .mp3s to whole fleets of portable players in a progression of shapes and sizes, usually with excellent quality control. They translated and re-recorded scripts in multiple languages. They tried their hand at inventing new, ever more compact, convenient, and rugged players, which they leased to museums and which the museums rented out in turn to their visitors—often with the help of trained staff supplied by the companies. By and large, it was a harmonious model, and all seemed right with the world.

Then the world changed. Thanks to software and hardware advances, it became far easier to produce audio and video, and a new generation came of age and they were called “Digital Natives.” There where their parents feared to tread, they knew no fear.

Museums, for their part, began to pay more than lip-service to the public’s “right to know.” In some cases—though by no means all—an ethos of universal access to interpretation emerged: Interpretation as a right, not a privilege with a price tag on it. A perfect storm emerged:

  1. The profit motive for audio interpretation dwindled;
  2. The desire to offer audio interpretation for more exhibitions grew, including the so-called “difficult,” unpopular ones that for-profit audio tour companies had typically neglected (not a fit for their profit model);
  3. The Digital Native generation came of age and began to work in museums.

The old model shaken, empires buckled, and we find ourselves today in a dramatically altered landscape set against the debris of old devices now rendered obsolete: diasporas of audio engineers, creative producers, and script writers; new DIY software vendors; new consumer platforms ranging from iPods to smart phones; and lots of possible permutations for museums eager to move forward with mobile interpretation for their visitors.

Some museums opt to have their curators and content experts “phone in” their commentaries and publish them to visitors’ cell phones. Others conduct and edit interviews, script narratives, and produce their own tours, with or without outside help, and then publish them using any of a variety of mobile content management software systems now on the market. They make them available on devices they lend to visitors and/or visitors’ own devices via the Web or an app store. Others still prefer to delegate the whole kit and caboodle—content production, publishing, hardware provisioning, staffing and distribution—to a single outside company for a turnkey solution, as in the old days.

All solutions are possible, and different situations may call for different responses, even in the same museum. Consider the grid below:

 Script Development Media Production Publishing to Devices Hardware Provisioning Mktg, Sales & Distribution Analysis & Evaluation
Museum Alone
 Museum with Vendor
 Completely Outsourced
There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer for how to approach your own project. Any given square in the grid can be a “right” answer, and your museum can move from one row to another—from working alone to outsourcing—as it proceeds through the phases of your project. For a given task, museums can:
  • choose to do the work themselves
  • collaborate with an outside vendor in such a way as to build their in-house expertise
  • completely outsource the task

To determine which model is best suited to your museum, do an assessment of your in-house talents, skills, and capacities—and your potential outside partners. Think outside current job descriptions. Talents are things at which someone on your staff excels (storytelling, for example, or digital media production). Skills are things you can do well. And capacities are something you or someone on your team could do—or learn to do—if required. Partners are your network of outside resources: people, companies, or collaborating institutions you could call upon to help. Look at your untapped talent pool—or consider hiring or training people to do things that were never previously part of the museum staff skill-set.

You may decide it is more important to devote staff time to building expertise and interpretive resources around the permanent collection, and outsource the temporary exhibitions. Or you may decide that you want to publish to visitors’ own devices, thereby sparing your museum the expense of purchasing and maintaining hardware and staffing distribution desks. But be forewarned that by doing so you risk perpetuating the Digital Divide, making a situation where only those who can afford it (or have the chosen device) have access to interpretation. Many museums keep a fleet of devices on-site—from as few as 20 to 200 or more—which they offer to visitors to check out with the deposit of some form of security.

You may also decide that the solution you develop for “business as usual” falls short in the event of a blockbuster, for which you will need many hundreds of devices and one or more dedicated distribution desks with their own trained complement of staff. In today’s transitional environment, the old rules no longer apply. You can put out an RFP to several mobile tour companies for the servicing of that specific show and retain your in-house solution for less encumbered times.

We’re entering a mix-and-match media world. Keep copyright to any content you develop and make sure it is available to you in file formats compatible with future re-purposing to other platforms. Assess (and grow) your capacities, skills and talents, choose your partners to complement your in-house strengths, and be prepared to adapt to new opportunities as they unfold. In these times of technological change, it’s the mission, not the means, that will be your fixed target.

Peter Samis is associate curator, interpretive media, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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One response to “Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production

  1. Pingback: Embracing Mobile | Museum Minute

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