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Audio Guide Special – Storylines / Project Description

Individual Pathways through the Exhibition Landscape

by Katharina Kepplinger

Exhibition audio guides are usually based on one of two different principles: First there is the linear guide that lays out a specific route and with it a dramatic composition. Then we have what is called a random access guide; all audio tracks can stand alone and there is no predefined route to follow. Linear guides build up suspense which is resolved at the end of the tour. They show links between different objects and coordinate facts and contexts. With random access guides, the visitor is in charge. He or she decides the length of the tour, which objects to spend more time on, and where it all starts and ends. Random access guides allow visitors to design their own audio tour and the museum can also easily modify or expand the guides.

With the project “Audio Guide Special,” the sound art duo Serotonin, made up of Marie-Luise Goerke and Matthias Pusch, attempt to combine the advantages of these two audio guide concepts. The idea is for users to find their own way through the exhibition and still create a dramatic arc. Serotonin developed a dense web of storylines that are interwoven in different ways. Similar to a circular railway, this system lets users to decide when they would like to stop, switch cars, continue, or even return to a previous station. A novel approach in its current museum context, this principle can be adapted for many different exhibitions.

The Stories between the Objects

How to convey non-linear text elements in an exhibition was a central question that the Humboldt Lab Dahlem had grappled with before the project for the “Audio Guide Special” was commissioned. The objective: to reveal the stories connecting the objects. Serotonin was interested in finding an information medium that would allow visitors to keep their focus where it mattered: on the exhibits. In cooperation with the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW) Berlin – University of Applied Sciences, the two artists collaborated with engineers to develop a device prototype with gesture control. Thanks to a device – in this case, headphones – that can recognize nodding as an affirmative gesture, visitors can decide how to navigate through the collection without having to take their eyes off the objects or images.

Given the complex technical demands, the development of a fully functional prototype could not be completed within the project time frame. The guide’s potential was therefore simulated in a 72-minute mash-up for visitors, who could listen to recorded instructions and learn about future applications. An initial feasibility study was completed by the HTW Berlin and a gesture-controlled headphone prototype was created and tested during two workshops in Dahlem.

The Visitor as Curator

The “Audio Guide Special” was developed for the exhibition “Myth of the Golden Triangle” at the Ethnological Museum. This permanent exhibition was conceived by Roland Platz, curator for South and Southeast Asia, whose arrangement of objects, pictures, and text panels informs visitors of the lives of mountain people in Southeast Asia. Curating an exhibition always involves decisions: choices about objects, but also topics, emphases, and information. Because of their size, text panels cannot contain comprehensive historical information or storylines. Nor can they be responsive to individual visitors: What are their interests? What prior knowledge do they bring to the space?

The “Audio Guide Special” asks visitors to step into the role of the curator and make decisions as they go. The guide contains audio topics defined by Marie-Luise Goerke and Matthias Pusch, which they then paired with central exhibition pieces. Visitors choose their own path through the exhibition depending on their interests, energy level, and state of mind: “I want to find out more about opium.” “Stories alone are boring; I’m going to activate the sound score on my audio guide.” “I have a tight schedule today; the interview with the collector Hansjörg Mayer needs to wait until next time.” “I am already pretty tired and don’t feel like I can absorb any more information. I’m going to turn on the music score for the rest of the exhibition and just let the objects speak for themselves.” For their next visit, visitors can compose a different audio guide by making different selections.

Mobile Guides in the Humboldt-Forum

Developing hardware that is fully dictated by artistic ideas and that enables a non-linear audio guide is both an ambitious and a welcome endeavor. Serotonin’s cooperation with the HTW Berlin to develop gesture-controlled headphones for their “Audio Guide Special” presents a model approach in this context. In terms of its content and creativity, the “Audio Guide Special” can also be viewed as an exemplary audio guide for the Humboldt-Forum – in addition to outstanding text, sound, and narrator quality, it also offers an excellent mix of original recordings, sounds, and music that come together to create new auditory content. The “Audio Guide Special” initiates a dialog with its listeners by prompting them to make active decisions; the dynamic software responds accordingly. Visitors receive a tour that matches their interests and follows the questions they have about the objects and the exhibition. The “Audio Guide Special” can therefore be grasped as a positive contribution to the culture of multiperspectivity that the Humboldt-Forum hopes to foster.

Katharina Kepplinger joined the Humboldt Lab Dahlem and the staff unit Humboldt-Forum in May 2015. Previously she worked as a specialist museum assistant in professional training at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and as a sales assistant for audio guides and audio tours for museums and exhibitions.

You can find further reading on this project here.