I love museums, and am fortunate that San Francisco has a number of great ones. I especially enjoy exploring museums with a friend. Wandering through a museum sharing thoughts about what we see is a big part of how I experience art and history. I also love to learn as much as possible about what I’m seeing, and in recent years this means taking advantage of the audio tour.
The problem with most audio tours I’ve experience however, is that they generally require headphones. Headphones are isolating and make it very difficult to share the experience with a companion. It isn’t just that earphones aren’t well designed designed for sharing, but also because my companion also tends to have their own headphones. Continually putting on and taking off headphones to chat is off putting. Ultimately, for me, this degrades the experience.
I recently had a great experience at the De Young museum when I went to see the King Tut exhibit that changed my perception of audio tours greatly. Instead of offering a set of headphones, we were offered what looked more like a wand with a earpiece on one end.
In addition to the earpiece, the lightweight device had a keypad built into it, and a strap to hang it around my neck. When we reached an exhibit with an audio portion, I keyed the number into the device and – this is the best part – could then SHARE the audio experience with my friend simply by putting our heads together and earpiece to both our ears. No headphones required. Content aside, the final experience was much more enjoyable than any headphone driven audio tour I’ve ever had.
All the advances in using mobile phones, spacial awareness, RFID tags and lasers that folks are talking about for next generation museum tours are all well and good, but museums shouldn’t forget that sharing is key to many folks experiences. It’s hard to share your experience if you’re isolated by headphones.