So far this year I’ve had two experiences with audio guides. They’re the handy recorded messages stored on small sound players or headsets, featuring people with stentorian voices who are only too happy to lead you around a popular tourist destination. If you haven’t actually used one yourself, you’ve surely noticed, on visiting any museum, old house, or indeed any place with tourists generally, that everyone else is sitting on benches listening to headphones.
My first encounter with audio tours this year was in Barcelona, at the mesmerizing Casa Batlló. In a blog post on that house, I wrote, “Normally audio guides stink, and this one has way too much pointless music and redundant sentences. One wonders if they thought about the fact that people would rather not look like dorks holding speakers to their ears if the audio guide is saying things like (actual quote) “Now, use your imagination and pretend this holographic portrait is Gaudí himself approaching to bid you adieu.” But this audio guide is actually interesting: if you don’t listen, you miss a lot of stuff. Each room of Casa Batlló is packed with tons of achingly brilliant detail.”
The other day I went with friends to St Paul’s Cathedral and experienced their audio tour. It wasn’t a dorky speaker you held up to your ear: it was an iPod Touch. With headphones plugged in. The Church of England is clearly financially stable.
And the tour was not so bad. It directed viewers to look at all the right places, explained how to get upstairs, and keenly admired artworks by the likes of Henry Moore. Plus there were a few audio tracks of the St Paul’s Choir.
But I’m still not a fan of audio guides. They tell you what you need to know, but they make it easy to forget to feel. The friends I was with had a strategy similar to mine: we sat in the chairs at the center of the cathedral, listened to three or four audio snippets we deemed crucial (out of 19!), and then wandered about to “ooh!” and “aah!” in peace. I do appreciate learning things. But I also appreciate being able to admire human creativity at its finest with my sense of awe functioning in silence.
So I walked behind things, looked through grates, found odd angles. Inspected the ironwork and the monuments to obscure lieutenant-generals past. Left the headphones draped around my neck. Several dozen people seemed to be simply milling about in every part of the cathedral. Indeed, I would describe the average tourist experience these days as “milling.” They were tuned in to whichever chapter (“Cleaning the Cathedral”), pacing back and forth or kicking the floor gently, staring at some mosaic or other while strapped in to a three-minute discourse on whatever element of cathedral history needed unpacking.
No. Audio guides aren’t useless, but they have their place. The Barcelona guide pointed out useful and exciting details, when it wasn’t spewing absurdities about holographs. The St Paul’s guide was a decent five-minute primer on cathedral basics.
But if the guide ceases to be worth your while, turn the thing off, or hand it back in, or something. My attitude is this: I can listen to things anywhere, or read Wikipedia articles almost anywhere. But I can only actually be in St Paul’s Cathedral, when I’m in St Paul’s Cathedral. Knowing things is important in such places, probably, but feeling them is more important. And when it comes time to suck in glories, to simply stand in quiet awe, an audio guide is a distraction. They’re like menus. Once you’re tasting your meal, you don’t need to read them anymore. Once I was intoxicated by the beauty of Christopher Wren’s design and countless craftsmen’s efforts, I didn’t need to hear “click through to the next chapter” anymore. The audio guide at its best is a smart, cultured middleman, but it’s still a middleman.
It’s also probably cheaper than hiring and training a set of expert tour guides to actually tell you things in person. But you knew that already.