Some thoughts on audio tours

Some footage of Stonehenge, recorded on a handheld DVCam during a short, unscheduled trip, June 2005.

People travel great distances for a close-up experience with Stonehenge. But when they reach these ancient stones, an audio tour, delivered on a handheld plastic stick, competes for their attention.

Audio guides are becoming an increasingly common site in museums, galleries and ancient monuments. They enable you to give facts and figures to visitors speaking many different languages. But I have my reservations about them. In particular, I’m concerned about the way they grab attention, diverting visitors from their immediate surroundings.

Here, for example, you can see many people looking away from the stones – and from each other – so they can concentrate on their audio tour. At the end if the video, you can see a clip of someone who is so involved in the tour and the business of pressing buttons, he hasn’t looked at the stones at all. If you look carefully, you can also see him at the beginning of my circuit around the stones.

These are my personal opinions of audio tours – I’d be interested to hear yours so do comment below. I’m particularly interested in ways to impart facts and figures, without putting people in such a ‘cognitive bubble’. I wouldn’t want to clutter the site with labels. Would a multilingual preshow work better? How about using human tour guides?


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  1. I don’t much like them. To me, they interfere too much with actually looking at what you’ve gone to see. I have tried them a couple of times but it’s easy to get preoccupied with standing in the right place for each part of the tour. Also, I like to explore places in my own way – not follow other audio tourists around like sheep. What I do sometimes like to do though is download an audio tour after the event – perhaps years after. Closing your eyes and re-living the tour in your mind is a nice experience.

  2. The isolating effect of audio tours is something I have long considered a drawback. They can be great for helping to provide multiple layers of interpretation to appeal to different senses and types of interest, but too often they seem to be implemented as a single layer of interpretation. Personally I find audio tours most useful, precisely because they isolate me, when visiting attractions with elderly relatives. As with everything, quality varies enormously. Apparently the children’s tour of the Ottoman exhibition at the Royal Academy was very good – lots of adults switched to it as it was both informative and amusing.

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