SFMOMA’s Playful and Profound Audio Tours

I had a truly magical museum experience in San Francisco's SFMOMA. After much anticipation, I finally had the opportunity to test the museums’s innovative new app in its natural setting.

Image via SFMOMA.ORG

Image via SFMOMA.ORG

Social Listening

I went to SFMOMA with my family (this visit was more pleasure than research). The wifi in the museum was strong enough for my two companions to quickly download the app. We smiled as we listened to the playful audio introduction: “The guides will tell you where to go. They’ll wait for you, because they know where you are too. Oh, that sounds creepy—it’s not.”

Audioguides can be solitary experiences. SFMOMA’s audio content, however, can be social. Using Detour's technology, users can scan QR codes on each other’s phones to sync the audio. This was great for the guided immersive walks; hearing information at the same time allowed us to interact while listening to the content. Even the fact that we laughed at the same time, rather than in syncopated bursts, made it feel like we were participating in the content together. I was the leader of our little group, and I was able to simultaneously pause all of our devices if we needed to immediately discuss what we were hearing.

Laughter in the Galleries

We obviously started with the audio journey called “I Don’t Get It”, featuring Silicon Valley actors Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr. The tour starts at Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (aka the signed urinal), where Nanjiani and Starr are joined by SFMOMA curator Caitlin Haskell. The actors’ often silly—and occasionally profound—commentaries are guided by Haskell’s informed insights.

Needless to say, the interactions between the three narrators were hilarious. My family and I could not contain our laughter. And it was surprisingly liberating to crack up laughing in otherwise silent galleries. I felt like we were making ourselves at home in the museum and appropriating the space.

Photo via Leah Millis, The Chronicle, sfgate.com 

Photo via Leah Millis, The Chronicle, sfgate.com 

A Seamless Experience

After wandering the galleries sans app, we had time for one more audio tour. We decided to be guided around the museum by Philippe Petit, the famous high-wire walker. His tour, “Unbalanced”, took us to artworks made by artists who poured their lives into their art. We listened to stories of artists who were obsessed with color, material, form, and the limits of art itself. The tour was contemplative and poetic.

Thanks to Detour’s technology, I kept my phone in my bag the whole time: vocal cues let us know where to go, and the app knew right when we got there. The experience was seamless. And there is content as you travel from one point of interest to the next. As Monsieur Petit led us between floors of the museum, he chatted with us about the themes of the visit.

Storytelling as Museum Education

Chad Coerver, chief content officer at SFMOMA, wrote a fascinating article about storytelling’s importance in SFMOMA’s digital content strategy. His team follows a short list of mantras to guide their storytelling across platforms:

  • Share your passion with me generously, and with genuine excitement.
  • Offer me a voice or experience that I can only get here.
  • Give me something I can relate to from my own lived experience.
  • Introduce me to artists as the complex, fascinating humans they are.
  • Surprise and delight me with unexpected perspectives and experiences.

This approach (and its execution) was very successful for me as a visitor. Storytelling worked its way into my imagination and memory. I looked at, and really considered, objects that I would have otherwise skipped—when I listen to someone passionate about something, I take a moment to consider if I could be passionate about it, too. And, even now, I remember the objects I looked at: both the information that I learned and how I felt interacting with them.

In my own experience, this app accomplished in me what museum interpretation should aim for: as I absorbed the content, my thoughts went deep into it and beyond it. I learned about modern art; I spent time thinking about life and art.