Nate DiMeo, The Memory Palace creator, former Artist-in-Residence at the Met

Nate DiMeo is the host and jack-of-all-trades creator of a podcast called The Memory Palace, which he started in 2008. Each episode runs anywhere from five to 15 minutes long, and features an eclectic array of historical narratives. DiMeo describes his show as “epiphany-driven,” adding that his story choices are “very much led by my own personal interests and my own weird foibles and my own strange kind of taste and take on the world (approx 15:00).” In 2016-17, DiMeo was named Artist in Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

In the museum context, the strength of DiMeo’s storytelling is reflected in his ability to spin tales that help listeners forge personal connections to inanimate objects, such as a ballroom that was relocated to the Met from a Virginia tavern or an Egyptian temple that is one of the museum’s best known exhibits.  Something distant is made relevant.  For museums that prioritize connecting visitors with the place and with objects in the collection, this skill is priceless. 

One main point that jumped out at me from the interview is that audio storytelling can be considered art. Good on the Met for taking a chance on The Memory Palace.

Other takeaways include:

  • There is no doubt that museums contain vast amounts of knowledge, but the challenge for any museum is figuring out how to bring out its expertise in a way that helps visitors forge personal connections. One example of a storytelling job well-done would be DiMeo’s story on the Temple of Dendur – which did indeed include scholarly historical information about the temple, but did not focus on it.  Listeners are reminded of seeing the temple at the Met, which DiMeo notes is “a specific place – like if you’ve been the Met once, you’ve been there (to the Temple of Dendur) (approx 24:00).”  Then, however, the narrative brings the story home, by turning “ an Egyptian story (into) a New York story (approx 25:30).”   
  • Good storytelling not only makes stronger and more engaging connections between people and what they see at a museum, it is simply more enjoyable to listen to. The idea of listenability, for lack of a better word, is essential, as museums compete with other sources of stimuli for the public’s attention. One example to illustrate this point is to compare The Memory Palace story of the Temple of Dendur, which is episode 5, with the conventional audio description that is available on the Met’s website. Which one would you rather listen to?
  • There is room for museums to improve their audio storytelling offerings. Audio guides are not flashy and therefore, almost an afterthought. However, a well-done audio guide provides a way for visitors to have independent and individualized experiences, while also allowing the museum to help shape those experiences in a way that is meaningful. DiMeo mentioned that when he had finished his residency, he “was pretty sure that this would open the door to more museum work,” but the reality is that “ostensibly, not a single other institution has reached out (approx 31:00).” This information is disappointing, but on the flip side, perhaps it also means the time is right to shake things up.     

My question for further discussion is why have museums not taken better advantage of integrating audio storytelling into their digital engagement offerings?

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah Freda says:

    I’ve only listened to a couple of his podcasts, but wow – Nate DiMeo is such an amazing storyteller! What makes his particular approach to museums so compelling is that he’s coming from an outsider’s point of view. By having him tell this object’s story, it seems more relatable, like telling a friend a story over a cup of coffee. In a way, it reminds me of a more highly-produced Object Stories at the Portland Museum of Art. He’s “tell[ing] stories you would never learn or notice just cruising through the gallery” about objects that are interesting to him.

    To Nate’s point, however, many curators may be hesitant to let someone else tell a story about their object. If that is the case, I don’t see a reason why a curator couldn’t share that story themselves. By having experts come in and share different perspectives (i.e. creative, technical, biographical), I think that would promote a personal connection with listeners. Combined with immersive background music, this would be a welcome upgrade to the traditional audio tour!

  2. deenadeutsch says:

    I just wrote an extensive paper for another course on the Temple of Dendur, and did have the pleasure of listening to his Soundcloud entry then. The beautiful way Nate weaves the past in with the present is exquisite, and greatly inspired my paper. I depend almost exclusively on audio software to ‘narrate’ text due to a visual disability, and must say that Nate’s submissions are amongt the most compelling I have yet to encounter. Not only is he a talented writer/storyteller, but his soft, articulate soothing voice has a way of ‘drawing one in to the story line, and leaves a lasting multisensory impression.

    Stephanie — I hope you have some way of communicating this to Nate, because his gift should be acknowledged — He is a truely a ‘bard’ and an inspiration. ~

  3. Mary Trosin says:

    Stephanie, this was so interesting, I had not considered audio to be innovative at all or an enticing option when thinking of projects I could pursue for this class. This is probably because it is not being used to its full potential in museums as the interview talks about. I think often it is easy to get caught up in what’s new and flashy with technology even if it is not the most logical solution, I can see how museums would think high tech would appeal more to their audiences than something simple like audio. But sometimes the solution is that simple and throwing extra technology at it for the sake of optics can be a huge waste of resources and a missed opportunity to develop and strengthen something you have that isn’t reaching its full potential yet. I can see how this could have easily happened in most museums as technology is progressing so fast.

  4. Stephanie,

    What an amazing experience to speak with DiMeo who has a such a unique position at the Met! I agree with all of your takeaways from the interview. However, I really connected with one of your final points, “Good storytelling not only makes stronger and more engaging connections between people and what they see at a museum, it is simply more enjoyable to listen to.” I think that DiMeo plays a really important role in creating an engaging story. This is so important especially when trying to connect with a large amount of people. I am so glad that you had a good experience, great job!

  5. Carissa Johnson says:

    With audio, there is a great opportunity to get different voices in there. An audio “tour” or podcast of your museum can be a benefit, as it is a different way people absorb information. There is nothing like a good road trip and interesting information on the radio, whether it be a podcast, or audiobook or the work that Nate does. It should catch on more. Is an idea only good if it can be afforded? Listening to audio while observing art would be so helpful to understand the pieces. I really enjoyed listening to Nate in this interview, he is an articulate and soothing public speaker and storyteller.

  6. Kenny Clink says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    I haven’t had the opportunity (prior to now) to listen to his podcast. The style of his podcast is quite amazing. It sounds like your interview was very exciting for you and I have to agree about his storytelling. He draws the interest because of the way he speaks and how it is facts in narrative form. The audio tour listed on the MET’s website seems like it is an attempt at this as well but ends up just being facts compiled into readable paragraphs.

    One thing that I have heard from some museum professionals and some visitors is that the audio tours tend to take away from the museum experience because some people feel like they need to keep pace with the audio tour. In my own experience, we had the audio tour when we visited the Statue of Liberty that was incredibly difficult to hear because there were no headphones and it played from a speaker at the bottom of the device. I don’t remember using it long. Today with websites like soundcloud and unlimited cellphone data audio tours like Nate’s seem to be more popular and more personal in a way as well. It reminded me a bit of the ASMR videos that are scattered across youtube.

  7. Madison Ney says:

    Hi Stephanie, Nate is such an interesting person to hear speak for sure. He can easily captivate an audience with just his voice! Story-telling in museums, I feel, is being faded out for many different reasons (outdated tours, pacing, etc.). I hope they can make a comeback in a more modern way of course.

  8. Kristina Zapfe says:

    Stephanie, this is a fascinating medium to hear you discuss with Nate. I feel like good quality, engaging audio elements are underutilized in museums, especially given the popularity of podcasts and ASMR uses.

  9. Jennifer Kimberlin says:

    I loved this interview Stephanie! The Temple of Dendur is one of my favorite things in NYC and I visited it regularly while researching at the Met Etruscan collection. I laughed about the Sacklers being Great American Villains (there is an HBO doc on them which I just watched). Up there with the Koch Brothers for sure. Thanks for introducing me to this podcast and I enjoyed hearing Nate so enthusiastically discuss the production.

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