After seven years of renovation, The Met’s British Galleries of decorative arts and design are reopened and better than ever. The new space (by the architecture firm Roman and Williams) is bold, dramatic, and often glamorous, with luxe materials, saturated colors, and new interpretive gallery materials to match. To support this, we designed a richly-textured audio experience to bring alive the complex, human stories behind the 700 objects on display. Our ambitious, innovative approach to both content and delivery ventures far beyond traditional museum interpretation. Instead, this is a unique and dimensional listening experience. The guide leads listeners through 400 years of history, unlocking a deep appreciation of what’s on view—and the relevance of decorative arts and design to our lives today. We achieved this in two key ways: 1) a lively, conversational script including a theatrical dramatization of historical writings, and a combination of contemporary interviews with both Met experts and international working craftspeople, and 2) a complex sound design including evocative sound effects and an original musical score.
Unlike a traditional audio tour, which might address just a single object per stop, this tour is designed for wandering and exploration. Each gallery with an audio stop features a themed story that builds a discreet contextual “world.” One key theme of the reinstallation is the contrast between “high and low” value objects. The tour amplifies this theme by immersing listeners in the lives of real, historical people who made or used these objects—whether they were monarchs or commoners.
Another key goal of the reinstallation—and amplified by the audio tour—is to highlight the multifaceted stories implicit in the objects on display. This includes, for example, the horrors of exploitation and violence that were intrinsic to the Empire’s technical achievements and colonial expansion. The intimate nature of the audio medium allows us to tell these stories in a way that text panels and object labels could not. Take, for example, the audio stop for a case of more than 200 teapots. A contemporary Haitian-American ceramicist discusses how, today, expensive teapots are ubiquitous in homes in the formerly-colonized West Indies because in prior generations, slaves had been told that they were not “civilized” enough to drink tea. Just feet away, the tour guides listeners to a collection of decadent silver boxes. They display images of a lush tropical landscape that, upon closer inspection, includes an enslaved man at work. As context, the stop also features an actor’s dramatic reading of powerful testimony by the once-enslaved memoirist, Olaudah Equiano, about his experience aboard an eighteenth-century slave ship.
The tour also addresses the lasting legacy of British decorative arts and design on taste and commerce. One glittering case of “toys,” decadent playthings for adults, is accompanied by a soundscape. Listeners are transported into the busy shopping streets of eighteenth-century London, a key moment of the birth of consumerism and retail shopping as we know it today. Similarly, the tour offers a human window on the birth of industrial design: including an enthusiastic letter written by novelist Charlotte Brontë about her visits to the Great Exhibition of 1851.
A spirit of internationalism was key to British art and design, whether in the sharing of ideas, methods of production, or the importing of materials. The audio guide brings this international spirit to life, as in The Met’s prized historic interiors from British country houses. Here, listeners are guided to recognize how ideals of classical art and philosophy are on display in the architectural details and invited to join other notable dinner guests such as visiting royalty, and key political figures debating anti-monarchist ideas or the American Revolutionary War.
These are just a few highlights from this unique listening experience, which delivers a fresh take on how centuries of innovative design unlock deeper stories about internationalism, technology, entrepreneurship, and the complex reality of empire-building.