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Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Just a word in your ear

Audioguides make gallery-going more interesting

Staff writer

A visitor to "Sesshu -- Master of Ink and Brush" at the Tokyo National Museum, Ueno, stops in front of one of the paintings. She has just been told to do so by the audio guide she's holding in her hand, which then launches into a detailed explanation of the painting's historical background and notable features. The commentary is perfectly timed to match the walking pace of a museum browser.

News photo
A visitor to the Sesshu exhibition at Tokyo National Museum uses an audioguide; below: the device offers commentary paced to match the walking speed of a museum browser.
News photo

"This is great!" says Ayako Morita, 23, who is using the audio device for the first time. "I would have just walked past some of the most important paintings if I hadn't been listening to this."

Compared to the United States and Europe, where many major exhibitions and almost all national museums have audio guides available for visitors to borrow or rent, Japan is just starting to catch up in providing this service. It seems that public demand for audio guides is growing, however. Tokyo National Museum reports that the "Acoustiguide" available at the Sesshu exhibition has been very popular, with around 14 percent (more than one in seven) of visitors opting to use it.

The Japanese producers of the earphone guide, Acoustiguide Denon Inc., are part of a worldwide, New York-based operation that creates guides in 20 languages in 22 countries. The Japanese branch aims to spread the use of such devices here.

"I want to make Acoustiguides that capture the central points of each exhibition, and that have a 'plot' or theme that visitors find interesting," says Kaori Kurata, 26, creative manager of Acoustiguide Denon Inc.

Kurata -- who oversees the entire creation process of an Acoustiguide, from scriptwriting and editing through liaising with the museum and selecting the voice actors -- adds that the fruit of research undertaken by museum curators and exhibition researchers does not always make its way to public notice. That's where Acoustiguides can help, she believes.

The Japanese company also produces Acoustiguides in English, and though these are still rare here, they are now beginning to appear in the larger of Japan's museums and at major exhibitions.

Nara National Museum in Nara City was one of the first to recognize the importance of English earphone guides and to introduce them for special exhibitions. Melissa Rinne, editor and supervisor of the English audio tour (and other English-language material) at the museum, says the guide is extremely informative. Its value, she says, lies in bridging gaps in cultural knowledge, since it has to be assumed that most foreign visitors will not be so familiar with Japanese history or art. However, a well-produced guide will also provide a depth of information interesting even to scholars.

"Even little things that might be obvious to a Japanese person must be explained," says Rinne. "For example, when talking about a Bodhisattva for the first time, one should give an explanation of what the term means, although it's common in Japan. Even [when using a term such as] the Nara Period, most people don't know it immediately, so the first time it appears you have to give the dates."

Following the successful introduction of English Acoustiguides last fall, and anticipating a rise in visitor numbers due to the upcoming soccer World Cup, the Nara museum has decided to use the guides again this year for its "Ultimate Todai-ji" exhibition.

Producing audio guides for a museum's permanent collection, however, poses more of a challenge.

"In many museums in the West, objects are left out permanently," Rinne points out, "so it's easy to prepare an audio guide for the permanent collection. In Japan it's extremely difficult, because generally museums have various rotations of the collection, and there is great difficulty monitoring which objects are going to be out when, and how to number them."

She adds, however, that in this day and age, when Japan is trying to become more open to foreign tourists as well as foreign residents, it is important that exhibitions appeal to such people. "I hope having audio guides is something that museums will strive for in the future," she says.

The translator of the script for last year's Shosoin and Todai-ji exhibitions at the Nara museum, agrees. "It is a very important innovation in Japanese museum visiting," he says. The translator (a professor of Japanese art history who asked not to be identified), believes audio guides are a very valuable educational tool: "Once Japanese museums start doing it and they see how much visitors benefit from them, [the number of] audio guides will increase."

English-language Acoustiguides are available at "Ultimate Todai-ji," showing at Nara National Museum till July 7; Tokyo National Museum will launch an English-language Acoustiguide for the standing exhibition May 28-July 7, to mark the Korea-Japan soccer World Cup finals. Japanese Acoustiguides are available at "Sesshu -- Master of Ink and Brush" at Tokyo National Museum till May 19. Acoustiguide rental is 500 yen at both venues. For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 for "Sesshu" and (06) 4860-8600 for "Todai-ji."

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