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A Piece of Work host Abbi Jacobson in MoMA. Image: © Ryan Muir/WNYC Studios

When you decide to write a column about how cultural institutions are working with podcasting, it becomes very quickly evident just how bad a job most of them are doing.

It’s not that the podcasts are bad, per se, it’s just that they’re not very interesting: firstly as stand-alone cultural products, but, more acutely as the creation of producers who have access to huge cultural archives yet don’t seem particularly interested in showcasing them.

As I listened to podcast after podcast across the spectrum of cultural institutions, I found organisation after organisation using podcasts as a cheap augmentation of existing programming: simple recordings of talks running alongside performances and exhibitions; or a junior member of the marketing team tasked with recording an interview in an artist in an echoey room, rarely digging beneath the surface of interviews this artist has done before.

Occasionally, I would find one with grander production values, emulating already popular podcasts in tone, style, and research – such as the Smithsonian’s collaborations with PRX – but rarely did they look at the way their access to a cultural collection (and the curators, archivists, and scientists who work alongside that collection) could help them to create something different than their podcasting peers.

Too often, I found cultural institutions thinking of podcasts not as a medium in which to express ideas and to be an extension of their cultural activities, but simply as marketing, or as content for content’s sake.

Too often, cultural institutions think of podcasts not as an extension of their cultural activities, but simply as content for content’s sake.

The pity of this becomes apparent when, among lecture recordings, you find the rare exception – a podcast that thinks about how to do things differently: how to use this free, globally disseminated artform to bring new audiences to the gallery, new understandings of the zoo, new eyes on history.

Museums and galleries dabbling in podcasting is nothing new: The New York Times wrote about the ‘invasion of the podcasts’ in museums in 2006. The use of podcasts in these spaces took over from existing audio guides: radio receivers were used at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1958; tape players were used at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1963. While podcasting was at first seen in the same way, it rapidly allowed an expansion away from the physical space of the gallery – and the physical relationship with the art.

Perhaps the most widely-known museum podcast is A Piece of Work, a collaboration between New York’s MoMA and WYNC Studios released over July and August 2017. The production remains a stand-out of the genre, hosted by the affable Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) as she wonders over pieces in the gallery. The show hits a wonderful balance of knowledge and discovery: Jacobson (who also studied art and moonlights as an illustrator) interviews curators, celebrity friends, and her two-year-old niece. The podcast invites New Yorkers to explore and understand the collections on a deeper level, while also providing an insight into art and art history which works just as well on the other side of the world, far from the gallery walls. 

One of the institutions profiled in that New York Times article is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which began creating podcasts in 2005, described then by a curator as ‘a kind of audio art zine’. SFMOMA are still podcasting – and their audio productions are some of the most interesting cultural products related to a gallery. The current iteration of their podcast, called Raw Material, recently finished up its fourth season – and where A Piece of Work looked at what existed in the gallery, SFMOMA tends to look at art which cannot be constrained to gallery walls.

While the first season struggled to find a unique voice, in seasons two and three Raw Material created a new way for a physical institution to document and have a relationship with the work that exists outside of their own spaces. Looking at land art, performance art, and work which happens in communities, it uses the institution’s cultural knowledge to explore the work it cannot collect. It understands the political space of art and curation, and actively seeks to be a corrective against an art history which is predominantly male and white – exploring in depth and with sensitivity the work of Native artists, immigrant artists, Black artists, and women artists.

[Raw Material] understands the political space of art and curation, and actively seeks to be a corrective against an art history which is predominantly male and white.

Threads of women’s voices exist throughout the series, but are the most highlighted in season four, ‘Meeting in the Ladies Room’ – perhaps Raw Material’s least ambitious series, but one of its most interesting. This season moves from a mode of production to a mode of curation: by creating a ‘mixtape’ of podcast episodes looking at women in art (including A Piece of Work), they highlight interesting voices in podcasting but also reposition the idea of a gallery curation. The global, online distribution of podcasts means it is an artform which cannot exist ‘within the collection’ of the gallery – but this method creates an interesting way for the gallery to highlight this rapidly changing and expanding genre as an artform.

Closer to home, one of the most interesting podcasts this year has been Fauna from Zoos Victoria, a seven-part series produced by Bridie Smith and Bec Fary, and hosted by Annie Last. Visiting Melbourne Zoo last year, I was struck at how boldly the institution wore its politics. Every demonstration by a zookeeper and every information sign includes information about the threats to these animals, and what visitors can do to change this: from not using balloons, to writing to your representatives in parliament.

Fauna also proudly displays this politics: less a conversation about the zoo itself, and more a conversation about conservation and the responsibilities – both political and individual – inherent in that. For most of us, visiting the zoo is largely a visual experience, and while Last often provides visual descriptions throughout the series, the most interesting part of the work is how it honours and celebrates the auditory experience of these zoos and wild habitats.

Fauna proudly displays its politics: less a conversation about the zoo itself, and more a conversation about conservation and responsibilities – both political and individual.

It understands, too, the incredible access which can come from creating a podcast inside the institution: interviewing the vets and zoologists who make these spaces work – telling the stories of achievements (reintroducing possums into the wild, gorillas happy to have their teeth brushed) and stories of devastation (having to put down a seal, the evacuation of Healesville Sanctuary during the 2009 Black Saturday fires).

In the face of a rapidly shrinking journalistic market in Australia, it is of course pertinent to ask what is lost when these stories are told from inside the zoo and not outside of it: what perspectives do we not hear, what stories would never be approved for the telling? But these are external questions, and within its constraints the podcast itself is a remarkable achievement.

Another highlight of the year in Australian podcasting has been History Lab, hosted by Tamson Pietsch with Emma Lancaster as executive producer in a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Public History and Sydney community radio station 2SER. Australia’s archives belong to Australians, but we rarely get access to them – History Lab works to change that.

In the face of a rapidly shrinking journalistic market, it is pertinent to ask what is lost when these stories are told from inside the [institution] – what perspectives do we not hear?

As Fauna embraces the audio form to tell stories of a medium most of us would think of as visual and physical, History Lab is interested in finding the right auditory footprint for archives and stories which are accessible to the public primarily through writing: telling these stories through documentary sound recordings, such as when as criminologist, historian and professor Katherine Biber views Azaria Chamberlain’s jumpsuit for the first time; through performance, as voice actors read old love letters; and through the first cautious steps of contemporary translation, as Maddi Lyn, a Gundungurra and Darug singer, brings voice to the transcribed songs of Eora fisherwomen.

These podcasts are, in many ways, disparate from each other: they look at different stories from different perspectives with different production techniques. But they’re all tackling the same problem: how do we allow people access to the academy in a way which is intellectually rigorous, yet still accessible and artistically exciting?

In 2018, there are far more podcasts than any of us will ever be able to listen to – there’s no need for cultural institutions to dabble in the genre for the sake of it. That is, unless, they are doing it in a way that is as ambitious as these.