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SAAM's Soundtracks and Soundbites

Page history last edited by Nancy Proctor 15 years, 10 months ago

SAAM's Soundtracks & Soundbites

Presented by Nancy Proctor 


I am increasingly convinced that is no specific technology or platform that will revolutionize our visitors’ museum experiences, but our visitors are transforming the museum visit themselves through new informational practices that they are importing to the museum from their Web 2.0 lives. WWW has come to mean “whatever, whenever, wherever” and two dominant web paradigms – search and download – are shaping our visitors’ demands and expectations of the museum experience. I’ve come to call this next generation of mobile museum services the Soundbite and the Soundtrack. The question of the future of museum interpretation, therefore, is not one of what technology our visitors will prefer, but rather of which modality: search or download.



The Smithsonian American Art Museum is undertaking two pilot mobile interpretation projects to develop new tools for the visitor experience both on site and beyond using these two modalities:


1. Soundtracks: immersive, audio-led experiences of exhibitions and collections. Heir to the traditional audio tour, soundtracks are, for preference, downloaded onto the visitor’s own device and provide a ‘score’ for the museum experience rather than a traditional object-by-object guided tour.


  • Downloaded for preference on visitor’s own device for a more intimate, comfortable, and 'natural' experience;
  • Can be stereo for immersive audio experience;
  • Is the soundtrack that completes the visuals, creating a wholistic experience, more than a two minute factoid;
  • Good storytelling is key;
  • May need to outsource to guarantee high production values;
  • Getting curators to think with their ears may be the biggest challenge of all.


2. Soundbites: short, informational messages that can be searched through a range of devices and media (audio, multimedia, or text), with attendant services that further integrate the museum experience into the visitor’s lives and personal technologies, both outside the museum as well as on-site. 


  • More easily done in-house than Soundtracks;
  • Can leverage existing content;
  • Mixed media;
  • Connects platforms, e.g. website/iPhone;
  • Facilitates going deeper & broader, serendipitous discoveries, rhizomic structure;
  • Can be a tool for information gathering by the visitor, so applications that allow bookmarking and other links to online systems add value;
  • Put soundbites out into 3rd party platforms & portals to increase marketing & outreach effect.



The focus here is of course content, and user experience design, but there is a message for technologists as well: choose the platform that suits the content and experience you want to communicate, not based on the features and functions per se of the technology.


Review of Mobile Platforms in light of their support for Soundtracks vs Soundbite experiences: 

  1. Traditional museum-specific audio tour devices: generally support both soundtracks & soundbites;
  2. Cellphones: in ergonomics, sound quality and business model, favor soundbites over soundtracks;
  3. Multimedia players: support both soundtracks & soundbites;
  4. iPhone/iPod Touch: support both soundtracks & soundbites;
  5. Consumer MP3 players: can support both soundtracks & soundbites, but without keypads or search modalities, more adapted for linear and immersive soundtrack experiences in both podcast and 'downloadable audio tour' formats.



Thinking in terms of content and experience design through the modalities of ‘search’ (soundbites) and ‘download’ (soundtracks) takes the museum beyond the traditional two minute audio tour stop. This integrated approach to interpretation recognizes the museum as a distributed network with the potential to reach visitors through a wide range of platforms both within the museum's walls and far beyond.


Comments (1)

Bruce Falk said

at 10:19 pm on Sep 16, 2008

Have other paradigms yet been explored?

I think of 'Forum,' 'Dashboard,' or 'Scrapbook' in which a social space is made available with visitor comments and aggregate data (possibly sorted by active or passive tag mechanisms) for immediate browsing, group discussion (joining a conversation in progress on a provocative topic or work, for example), or later enjoyment at home, giving the visitor an opportunity to re-engage and possibly query staff and others who allow some means of later contact about specific questions in a space and with time that allows for greater contemplation.

'Game' or 'Scavenger Hunt,' in which the interface is less didactic information than nav structure, grouping/non-grouping, or engagement of visitor choice/decision-making (here the Newseum's ethical dilemma comes to mind as a way of directing visitor engagement with exhibits).

Not exhaustively, a hybrid approach between soundbite and soundtrack might prove highly effective. This is one in which visitors are invited to shape the narrative as they go (the advantage of soundbites), while retaining overall narrative coherence, and therefore memorability, throughout (the advantage of the soundtrack). To do this, soundbites would have to be designed and mapped out as rounded cells, with all 'touching' cells (that is, that subset of soundbites that are viable choice options from any given location) sharing connecting material that allows for near-seamless transitions. A good analogy might be that of a medley (or mixtape) whose parts can be interchanged in a variety of ways without appearing to do violence to the overall experience.

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