Beyond the Uniform – MoMA’s Reimagined Audio

In anticipation of MoMA’s 2019 expansion, the Interpretation, Research and Digital Learning team in collaboration with Antenna International set out to reimagine the museum’s mobile audio program. 

The 2019 expansion of The Museum of Modern Art nearly doubled MoMA’s gallery spaces.  One of our key goals was to reimagine how audio could make the museum feel less overwhelming, and offer visitors a friendly “way in” to organize their visit in a story-first way.  To do this, we took our cue from the way visitors behave outside the museum when consuming audio with Spotify or Pandora – namely, using playlists.  So we created a new kind of interface – a menu of thematic playlists that offer visitors “hosted” journeys that link art and ideas across different galleries and time periods.

“Beyond the Uniform” Content Approach

As part of this reimagined audio approach, we adopted these guidelines:

  •  Be radically inclusive in the voices we choose
  •  Incorporate criticality and contemporary relevance within our storytelling
  • Connect with listeners emotionally
  • Join the conversation our globally-minded audience is already having outside the Museum’s walls by foregrounding contemporary issues 
  •  Be Human

Employing these strategies allowed us to expand our storytelling across the museum, moving beyond an art historical narrative, featuring a diversity of today’s voices, and offering stories that are welcoming, inclusive, and enlightening.

“I think people just see me in a uniform but don’t know who I am. You don’t know that I’ve written over a hundred songs. I’ve acted, I’ve written my own scripts.  I’ve traveled the world. Like, people don’t know that. I’m more than just a suit.”  Kevin Reid, Security Officer 

Beyond the Uniform” is one of the 12 featured playlists offered now in the reimagined MoMA Audio app.    This playlist covers 20 objects across three floors of the museum, and foregrounds the voices of an unexpected and underappreciated group of experts – MoMA’s Security Officers.  Most of them are people of color, and artists themselves, and feel deeply connected to the works they protect every day.  Yet many describe their daily museum experience as being “invisible” in the galleries.   So we literally handed these insightful human beings the interpretative reins.  In the playlist, they share their knowledge, reflections, anecdotes, memories, poetry, freestyle raps, and stories of lived experience the see captured in the museum’s artworks.  What we created together is an audio journey like no other “official” museum-wide program ever heard. 

Additional featured playlists employ this same kind of inclusive approach such as “Radical Acts” which has artists and activists from around the globe exploring art’s potential for radical impact and change and “Made in New York”, a multifaceted portrait of New York City through the art and artists inspired by it, and the people who live there every day.  

For the user, the experience is simple, streamlined, and friendly: playlists are the first thing that appear when a visitor opens the MoMA Audio app.  The MoMA Audio app is downloadable on either their own device, or visitors can use a device that we provide free-of-charge.  The playlists are also available for at-home listening on moma.org.  Each object with featured audio in the galleries indicates this with a teaser line about the content and instructions on how to access the story.  

Impact:  In January 2020, we conducted two days of evaluation around the new playlists.  In past evaluations, the most common words visitors used to describe MoMA’s audio were “informative,” “academic,” and “intellectual.”  After our re-boot, the most common descriptors were “engaging, “informative,” and “conversational.”   Visitors responded in an overwhelmingly positive way to the shift in tone, authenticity and emotional impact of hearing a diversity of voices and multiple points of view.  One visitor described it this way: 

 “It was emotional but not over the top. These were heartfelt narrations.  Other guides I’ve had are full of attitude, they lecture you and condescend to you as if you’re a jerk who doesn’t know anything. This guide is the opposite.”    

 Another said:

“Some speakers, especially the women artists who spoke with empathy about what they made, made me feel emotionally connected to it.”

And finally:

“Each of the stops sparked a conversation for us to discuss the work together after the audio was finished.”