SFMOMA and Museum Hack: Creating Content For an Audio Tour

As soon as I read about SFMOMA’s new app, I had an immediate audioguide crush. The app features exciting technology and innovative content. It reimagines what a relevant audio tour experience can be.

The app proposes several Immersive Walks, which are 15-45 minute audio “journeys”. These tours are wonderfully creative. You can choose the mood you want for your visit, from the hilarious “I Don’t Get It” tour with Silicon Valley actors to the profound “World of Tomorrow: Artists as Futurists” with futurist Marina Gorbis.

SFMOMA invited Museum Hack, an exciting company that leads interactive tours of museums, to develop one of these audio tours. I had the opportunity to chat about the production of this tour with Museum Hack’s Ethan Angelica.

Image via sfmoma.org

Image via sfmoma.org

SFMOMA’s Audacious New App

Developed with the tech company Detour, SFMOMA’s app knows where you are in the museum and adjusts its audio offerings. This is a huge departure from the ‘stop at an artwork and enter a number on your phone’ model. There are also many innovative tech features, like a virtual museum map or QR codes you can scan to listen to the same content as your friends.

But, as well designed as the technology is, what set my museum education heart aflutter is the content. From the beginning, the tone is accessible and fun: when you launch the app, radio reporter Marianne McCune explains how the app works: “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.” In a Wired article, Chad Coerver, the museum’s chief content officer, called the app “a cross between This American Life and the movie Her.

SFMOMA Logo
Museum Hack Logo

A Collaboration With Museum Hack: Objectives and Approach

The Museum Hack audio tour is fun and irreverent, described in the app as thus: “Let Museum Hack take you on a high-energy, über-opinionated ride through the galleries.” Museum Hack’s Lia Tamborra (Creative Associate) and Ethan Angelica (Tour Guide and VIP Partnerships Coordinator) led the project. “It was a really fun opportunity to get a chance to be on the ground floor with something like this,” said Ethan. “It was an innovative risk that they took with all the audio content.”

According to Ethan, the objectives of this audio tour for its users were the same as for any Museum Hack project: “The main purpose of Museum Hack is to create an opportunity for people who don’t think they like museums to explore, to get excited about museums, and to want to come back for more. Everything we do falls into that bucket.”

Ethan and Lia met with Detour’s team to discuss taking a ‘Museum Hack’-style experience and putting it into Detour’s format. It turned out that Museum Hack’s approach was a great fit for Detour’s technology. “When Museum Hack creates tours, we’re looking for a non-traditional approach both to the content and to the experience,” said Ethan. “So using Detour’s technology actually worked really well for us. It allows it to become slightly more experiential than stopping to type in a number and then listen to it.”

I was curious about how preparing an audio tour compared with a physical tour. The challenge was in the fact that recorded content is not personalized but is highly personal. The team had to work at translating Museum Hack’s interactive, one-on-one experience into a recorded format, that was still “so personal that you’re literally in someone’s head”.  

Ethan Angelica and Lia Tamborra recording for the audio tour. Image via museumhack.com

Ethan Angelica and Lia Tamborra recording for the audio tour. Image via museumhack.com

Creating the Content

Museum Hack was given a lot of free rein to develop content, within SFMOMA’s guidelines. SFMOMA was interested in Museum Hack’s approach of creating unique experiences for an audience that believes they’re not interested museums. “[SFMOMA] helped us to fit into some of the requirements that they have as an institution,” said Ethan, but we were given a lot of freedom to explore on our own and create on our own, which was really fun and quite liberating.” (An example of an institutional requirement? No profanity.)

Before creating their tour, Ethan and Lia were given a route through the museum to cover. When choosing which artworks to feature, they intentionally didn’t focus only on ‘major’ artworks. “We went and looked for the things that we as individuals were most excited about,” said Ethan. They were given access to SFMOMA’s resource collection, and in addition they conducted research on their own.

There was one minor challenge in creating the tour: the museum’s building wasn’t open until May 2016. Lia and Ethan had to create the tour without ever having visited the new building!

There are voice instructions guiding visitors between each artwork, meaning the user doesn’t have to look at her phone to get from one commentary to the next. While this is innovative, I was slightly concerned about this feature (as someone who has worked on a museum’s audio content before). What will they do when an object is moved, on loan, or being restored? It turns out that, thanks to Detour’s flexible format, SFMOMA can reshuffle the audio content. “We actually are prepared,” said Ethan. “There are extra audio recordings of us giving new directions to get to the artworks as they’re moved in the galleries.” ŸŸŸ


Thanks so much to Ethan Angelica for this interview. I’ll be in San Francisco this month, and I am excited to test out the app in SFMOMA!