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Guided Expectations: A Case Study of a Sound Collage Audio Guide

Ditte Laursen, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark


This paper is a user evaluation of a mobile phone audio guide developed for visitors to use at the National Gallery of Denmark. The audio guide is offered as a downloadable MP3 file to every incoming visitor who is carrying a mobile phone with an open Bluetooth connection. The guide itself is structured through association, offering an experience more comparable to an audio documentary than a traditional guided tour. Instead of directing visitors' focus of attention to selected points and objects provided by the museum as a producer, the sound collage relates indirectly to the various objects of the exhibition, emphasizing visitors' agency and authorship.

The paper reports on a number of strategies developed by visitors when experiencing an unfamiliar guide structure. These strategies reflect both a conflict between the initial expectation of guided instruction and the freedom of making choices according to personal interest, and a conflict between the expectation of a learning experience rather than an aesthetic experience. Results indicate that most visitors are able to make sense of the guide and to use it successfully, in different ways, to enrich their visit. Evaluation also shows that visitors are fond of using their own mobile phones - but they have several problems with their phones in downloading the MP3 file.

Keywords: mobile phone, audio tour, downloadable MP3 tours, sound collage, visitor studies, user expectations

1. Introduction

A fully scripted audio guide constantly demands visitors' attention, never giving them the opportunity to look at paintings other than the ones specifically mentioned in the tour. In order to provide visitors with more control, a fairly traditional solution is to allow visitors to choose which objects to hear about.

For resource reasons, however, with this type of audio guide, visitors often do not get to choose among all the objects in the exhibition. Instead, they must choose among a limited number of objects, pre-selected by the museum's staff. This paper gives a qualitative analysis of the use of an audio guide that was developed in order to provide visitors with more control, without restricting them to certain objects. The audio guide directs visitors not to specific pre-selected paintings, but rather to thematic areas of the exhibition, thus allowing them to move more freely about the museum.

The audio guide was developed for visitors to use on their own mobile phones at the National Gallery of Denmark. The analysis presented here focuses on visitors' comments given in semi-structured interviews, supplemented by video recorded observations of them using the audio guide. In the next section, the audio guide is described. Afterward, the research methods and procedure for the data collection are described. The author then describes how visitors behaved with the audio guide and discusses their comments about their experience. This section is divided into: 1) the visitors' behavior and comments as related to the medium of the mobile phone, and 2) the visitors' behavior and comments as related to a more open guide structure. Finally, the author discusses possible future work.

2. The Audio Guide

The audio guide was developed for visitors to use on their own mobile phones at the National Gallery of Denmark. In Denmark, the use of mobile phones is widespread, with more than 130 mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2010. The audio guide was offered as a downloadable MP3 file to every incoming visitor who was carrying a mobile phone with an open Bluetooth connection.

The guide was developed for an exhibition on Wilhelm Freddie (1909-1995), a Danish painter and sculptor known for his surrealist work. The guide itself was structured through association, offering an experience more comparable to an audio documentary than a traditional guided tour. The guide included original music and interviews, readings from contemporary newspapers, background noise from the artist's favorite café, etc. Instead of directing the visitors' attention to selected points and objects provided by the museum as producer, the sound collage related to thematic areas in the exhibition and more indirectly to the specific objects.

3. Method

The data for this study consisted of semi-structured, qualitative interviews and video recordings. Semi-structured interviews are not limited by the interviewer's preconceived notions, but rather encourage the users to speak freely about their own experience. This type of interview is appropriate in cases (such as the introduction of a new technologically mediated service) in which unanticipated uses and results may arise (Lofland 2006). Video recordings allow researchers to get closer to the experiences of the person-in-situation, walking and talking during the exhibition, than is possible via an interview performed afterwards (Jordan and Henderson 1995). The participants in the study wore a pair of video glasses (glasses with a tiny video camera placed between the eyes of the glasses, connected to a small microphone and a hard disk recorder). The video glasses allowed precision recordings of the participants' movements and interactions with objects and other people, as well as their perceived priorities both in terms of time and attention.

These methods generally involve a smaller number of participants than those involved in quantitative studies because they are data-intensive, meaning that each participant is studied in depth. Six couples participated in the study and ranged in age from 14 to 55 years of age. All twelve participants were recruited in or outside the museum on the day of the data collection. They had all previously visited the museum, but not the exhibition. All had mobile phones that they used daily, but they had no previous experience using a mobile phone at a museum site. Except for one pair (who were there on a school assignment), the visitors described themselves as frequent museums visitors: they were accompanied by a friend with whom they would normally visit a museum, and they had some experience in using PDAs (other than mobile phones) in a museum environment..

4. Procedure

Participants were told how the video glasses worked, but they were given no instructions for the audio guide. Participants who explicitly asked what to do were told to use the guide as they wished. The first phase was to download the audio guide. At this point, several of the participants had trouble downloading the guide to their mobile phone, and they requested some help. Even though the participants used their mobile phones daily, they had problems figuring out the Bluetooth connection, accepting the sound file and finding the file on their phones. Several also had memory problems - their phones' memory cards were already full and could not receive the sound file. Consequently, only two of the twelve participants successfully downloaded the file on their own. Six succeeded with help from museum staff, and four ended up borrowing phones or iPods from the museum. In only one case, the problem seemed to be a technical one, related to a specific phone brand.

Next, the participants started the tour. They all left in pairs, but some of them soon split up. Since only one person in each pair wore video glasses, some participants were not recorded for their whole experience (namely, the partners who split from the visitor wearing the video glasses). Some finished the tour in 20 minutes; others took more than 2 hours.

After the participants finished the tour, an interview was conducted. Both participants in each pair were interviewed together, allowing them to interact with each other. The interviews were recorded and lasted 20-30 minutes. The interviews were semi-structured, allowing new questions to emerge during the interview as a result of the participants' responses. Early questions concerned background information regarding participants' museum experiences and their experiences with mobile technologies in museums. Then, some general questions on the audio guide were introduced; e.g. "What was your initial reaction to the audio guide?" "What did you like/dislike?" "How would you describe your experience with the guide?" Next, more specific questions were raised; e.g. "Did the guide affect which way you went?" "Did the guide affect how you interacted with your friend? How?" In many cases, visitors talked about these more specific topics before the interviewer introduced them.

The interview data was collected in collaboration with museum staff. The author transcribed the data verbatim and in detail, and inductive coding was done (Lofland 2006).

5. Overall impression

As emerged in the interviews, the participants had a very positive response to the audio guide as mediated by the mobile phone, saying that is was "a brilliant idea", "a good initiative" and "really cool". The fact that the guide could be played on their own phones was particularly emphasized:

"I very much liked it because it is your own phone. It's better than if it is like part of the museum."

"You're more at ease with it. If I lose it on the floor, hey, I'll just pick it up again."

Many participants compared the guide with other presentation methods and stated that they would generally choose the audio guide over other methods. Participants preferred the audio guide because it was personal and gave them a high degree of control:

"With a human guide, it can sometimes be a little, I don't know, it just takes a little longer and then there are some questions. It is better going by yourself."

"It is great to have it in your ears. It is not so stationary. You can pause it and move around at your own pace."

Participants also preferred the audio format because it did not make visual demands. They were able to look at paintings while listening, instead of looking back and forth between a text and a painting:

"Often you would walk past those long, long boards that says everything possible, but with the audio guide you get to know while you look, it's really smart."

"To get information while looking is great. Especially, if you are told what to look for while you look at it. That works really well."

"You can move around while you look. So you don't have to jump around to reach the text: 'Oh, here they write about the painting' and then jump back again."

"If it was on the wall, I wouldn't read it. Because then you would have to look at two places at the same time."

In summary, participants had a very positive response to the audio guide as mediated by the mobile phone. However, participants encountered some problems with the sound, which in most cases was broadcast through the loud speakers of the mobile phone. Next, this is discussed in detail.

6. Audio presentation

In some mobile phone tours, the sound is accessed by dialing a number and the sound comes out through the speaker of the handset rather than through the loud speaker of the phone. In these cases, the sound is limited to one person. In this study, the sound was played through the speaker of the phone, allowing visitors to choose between sharing the sound or not (by wearing a headset). The visitors who wore a headset (one couple) left each other after a short while and walked on their own. After the tour was finished, they found each other and agreed to take the tour again separately. One of them stated afterwards, "You tend to get isolated," but all in all, the couple seemed happy with the way they had accessed the sound. The visitors who did not wear a headset faced two challenges: relating to their companion and their mutual social interactions, and relating to other museum visitors in their immediate surroundings. Most couples started out trying to walk together, both parties playing the sound on their respective phones. But the sound on the two phones was not synchronized, and after a short while, they were annoyed with the echoing. Some of the couples then split up; others agreed to share one phone. In both cases, the participants had the experience of disturbing other visitors in their immediate surroundings:

"We walked around, and then some people asked us to turn it off."

"There was an old lady that looked like she thought 'What are those girls thinking off playing loudly in a museum?'"

"They said they couldn't talk together so we had to turn it down. Later, we turned it a bit up again."

Thus, with the open-air sound, the participants were confronted with other visitors' norms and practices regarding how to behave in an art exhibition space; e.g. that one must not make noise. In the next section, I describe what participants reported regarding how the guide gave directions in the exhibition.

7. Expectations of specific guiding instructions

In the interviews, a key issue emerged relating to the participants' initial expectations of the audio guide: the participants expected more explicit guiding instructions than those that were provided, and a more direct relationship between the audio and the paintings in the exhibition.

Several participants expected the audio guide to be linear, with a predefined, precise route. Consequently, they were confused when they were not told where exactly to go:

"I was unsure whether to stop and wait or move on. And sometimes when it mentioned some artwork, we weren't sure if we should look for them or what. We then found some of them."

"When we came to the door, we didn't know which way to go. Eventually we just walked around."

"I think we were guided in the wrong direction or we heard it wrong. I think if we hadn't had the guide, we would have gone the right way."

Also, the participants expected a one-to-one relation between the audio and the paintings in the exhibition, instead of the audio relating to thematic areas in the exhibition:

"I was confused to begin with because I thought you were supposed to go to each painting and get information there, like a guided tour. It was certainly not so."

"We didn't think the sound fitted the painting we were at; it confused us."

"It talked about a painting that was sold for a lot of money, but we didn't know which painting it was. So we looked around to find it."

"He had painted some facades, but we could not see them."

"The audio file was finished before I had seen the exhibition, so I just walked around and saw the rest of it. It did nothing at all, but it's just, I didn't expect it to."

All of these quotes illustrate some predefined expectations of what an audio guide does. The participants were challenged by the fact that they could move around more freely than they originally thought, orienting the audio not to specific paintings on a linear route but rather to certain areas of the exhibition. As a consequence, visitors experiencing this unfamiliar guide structure developed a number of different strategies. In the next section, these strategies are outlined and supplemented with illustrative quotes.

8. Observed visitor behavior

In this section, I describe the behavior of the visitors while using the audio guide. The visitors used five main strategies as they encountered the unexpected guide structure:

1. Listening to the entire sound file right after entering the exhibition but before moving around:

"We stood there and thought 'Oh, this is an introduction and then there are some headlines.' So we looked for some pieces that we thought were there, but they were not there. So we decided to stand still and listen to it until the end."

2. Pausing after each part in order to study the paintings in greater detail:

"First, we began to listen and we went from area to area, like the speaker told us. But we thought it went too quickly, so we actually did it again afterwards, only this time we paused after each part and that went really well."

3. Moving around freely:

"I just wandered around. I didn't catch that you were supposed to be certain places. I just walked around, and it worked fine."

4. Deselecting the file:

"I think if we hadn't had the guide, we would have gone the right way. So we agreed to listen to it after Hall One, but then at Hall Two, we agreed to save it 'till we were finished. But at the end, we got what we wanted and even now we don't want to listen to it. It was enough with the paintings."

5. Trying repeatedly to find a one-to-one relationship between the paintings in the exhibition and the audio file:

"I went around looking for the painting, 'Where was it now?' I tried to remember the names so I could find the pieces that had been talked about. But it was hard to relate to when you were in the wrong place trying to find the right painting."

The five different strategies were developed as solutions to the problem the participants encountered when they were not given specific instructions that they expected. While 1 to 4 were not how the developers envisioned the use of the guide, these strategies indicate that the participants, after the initial confusion, managed to make sense of the guide. The participants all reported a successful visit, and they all used the guide (or chose not to use it) in different ways to enrich their visit. Only one couple (5) stuck to their preconceived notions of specific guiding instructions. This couple seemed to get little out of the guide as well as little out of the exhibition.

9. Self-reported experiences and outcome

In the interviews, one key experience emerged: primarily, the participants emphasized the 'aesthetic experience' (Kotler and Kotler 1998); i.e., an experience to which the participants responded through their senses:

"It worked well with the music as a background to the speaker's voice. It created an atmosphere; it painted a mood."

"I liked just listening to the painter's voice. You know, the sound of it."

"I came to think of a movie, just only with sound."

Also, the participants reported a 'learning experience' (Kotler and Kotler 1998); i.e., an experience in which participants acquired new information and listened for content and meaning:

"I thought it was great to get Surrealism summarized."

"I like to get some background knowledge so you know something about the artist you're dealing with."

"The historical perspective is important, is very important if you want to understand the painting."

Some of the participants expressed an expectation of a learning experience rather than an aesthetic experience. They seemed to orient themselves to a norm that values a learning experience over an aesthetic experience:

"It was hard to listen to the information when you looked at a painting, but it was very cozy - it gave a feeling when walking around at least."

"I thought it was okay, but you know, in a way, I would rather have listened to music and then read about the artist afterwards."

No one reported that the audio guide offered a recreational or sociable experience.

10. Conclusions and future work

In this paper, I have analyzed a mobile phone audio guide with sound content relating to different thematic areas in a Wilhelm Freddie exhibition. The findings show that participants are very positive about using their own mobile phones with this type of audio guide. The advantages of visitors using their own personal mobile phone are widely supported in museum literature (Tallon and Walker 2008). However, this study shows that in practice, it may be difficult for visitors. Even experienced phone users are not necessarily familiar with Bluetooth or downloading files to their phones. Also, none of the participants had brought their phone headsets to the museum. While visitors might prefer audio delivered through speakers to audio delivered through a headset (Woodruff, Aoki et al. 2002), the participants in this study, with the audio coming out loudspeakers, were confronted with other visitor's norms of a silent art museum.

The papers also reports on a number of strategies developed by the participants while experiencing a guide structure that directs visitors to thematic areas of the exhibition without restricting them to certain pieces. The results indicated that all visitors initially anticipated precise directions to pre-selected objects. However, most visitors adapted rather quickly and used the guide in individual and meaningful ways to enrich their visit. This suggests that the guide was effective because, in most cases, it helped visitors to strike the desired balance of being guided and being able to choose where and when to walk.

My current work includes a further analysis of the data collected over the course of this study. I am currently conducting a detailed conversation analysis of the video recordings in relation to how companions go about sharing a single phone and negotiating when and which way to walk, and how companions consider other visitors in relation to the open air sound stemming from their mobile phones.

11. References

Jordan, B. and A. Henderson (1995). "Interaction Analysis: Foundations and Practice." The Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(1): 39-103.

Kotler, N. G. and P. Kotler (1998). Museum strategy and marketing : designing missions, building audiences, generating revenue and resources. San Francisco, Calif., Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lofland, J. (2006). Analyzing social settings : a guide to qualitative observation and analysis. Belmont, CA, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Tallon, L. and K. Walker (2008). Digital technologies and the museum experience : handheld guides and other media. Lanham, AltaMira Press.

Woodruff, A., P. M. Aoki et al. (2002-05-20). "Eavesdropping on Electronic Guidebooks: Observing Learning Resources in Shared Listening Environments." from

Cite as:

Laursen, D., Guided Expectations: A Case Study of a Sound Collage Audio Guide. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted