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Museum audio tours take new turns

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KAI RYSSDAL: Phillipe de Montebello announced last night he’s going to retire at the end of the year. If maybe you haven’t heard the name, you might have heard his voice. De Montebello has been the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for 30 years. He’s also narrated most of the museum’s audio guides. His decision to do that prompted other museum directors to do the same thing. That helped those guides become enormously popular and profitable for the companies that produce them. But Ashely Milne Tyte reports from New York, some museums have begun taking their tours into their own hands.

Phillipe de Montebello: Essentially, a museum within a museum for the Metropolitan’s world-renowned collection of Hellenistic …

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: The voice that launched a thousand audio tours…. At some considerable expense. Jason Kaufman of “The Art Newspaper” says putting together a museum audio tour is a pricey proposition.

Jason Kaufman: Not just the rental of equipment but the help in writing the texts, and then the costs of producing them.

He says with advances in audio technology like podcasting, some museums are opting to design and produce their own tours.

Robin Dowden directs new media at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It has a program where visitors can dial up an audio tour on their cell phones. Dowden says that’s cheaper than a full audio-guide tour.

ROBIN DOWDEN: You know, again, we wanted to be able to make it available for free. And, of course, they’re using their own minutes on their phone so there’s some cost to them, but not much.

Dowden’s art museum pays $25,000 a year for its program. But museums pay much more for a full audio tour of a single exhibition. Sarah Dines is a managing director of Antenna Audio, which produces audio tours. She says some museums may produce their own, but most recognize they’re not the expert storytellers.

Sarah Dines: It’s really about the research, collaboration between educators and curators and our writers, and that’s a very kind of niche skill that, you know, would be very expensive and difficult for museums to bring in-house.

A curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art confirmed that view. He says a fully produced audio tour is worth the money. The museum can charge visitors to use it. And it lets museum staff get on with their jobs.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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