Sunday, 4 January 2009

Byzantine audio blight (oh and Christmas and all that)

I still love Christmas. It really helps to have a small family who are sane about the important things (albeit quietly barking about the other stuff). New Year at the Mexican Ovaltine Factory, dancing amid the plastic cacti, was also a blast (for the confused - it was just a friend's flat. In an old factory. With a mexican theme - ish).

But I failed to make any resolution not to rant, so here goes. Audio guides for exhibitions - not exactly a major evil of our time. However...

I would be the first to agree that audio guides have their place. Alcatraz, for example, has a really great one, and most importantly the space for visitors to enjoy it. The Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy, though, has a number of quite small items in a confined area. I have no way of telling whether the audio guide was good - I imagine so - but it cursed the exhibition for anyone who chose not to use it. First, of course, it ensured dense crowds around the choice items as they clustered, determined to hear everything while still in close proximity. Secondly, there is a pernicious tendency to remove all the informative and enjoyable information from the labelling in favour - I presume - of the audio. When I see the extraordinary detail of a micro-mosaic, to take one instance, I long to know how it was made, by whom, over how long a time. Ideally, I want nuggets of anecdote to add to the factual info. What I get is a name - micro-mosaic of the virgin (or similar) - and a date. And the date is often a bit suspect. Come to that, the name can be tricky too - as per the painting of 'Jesus' which looks distinctly female. I urge the curators of exhibitions to consider their readers as well as their listeners - and to provide a bit more space if they are going to encourage hordes of people to enjoy a single earing or coin - maybe even a blown-up image of the thing above it. I surely can't be the only person wondering if Saint Euphemia in the illustrated manuscript is really topless, and if so, why?

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