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?