Next time you're at a museum, don't assume that the guy listening to an iPod is too into his music to enjoy Monet. Podcast tours are available for a growing number of museums, from the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka to Paris's Musee d'Orsay. Tours tend to avoid the stuffy "enter here and notice . . ." lecture format so frequently heard on rented headsets. Instead, the new audio guides are big on discussions with artists, casual conversations with critics and academics, and sometimes even the irreverent comments of amateurs. And for now at least, most are free.
Downloadable tours sanctioned by museums are available on websites of institutions like New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. Louis's Contemporary Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A recent "artcast" about the latter's exhibit, "1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures," included the first winning entry from the museum's ongoing podcast competition--in which the catastrophe is re-created with narration, music, and sound effects. (SFMOMA even knocks $2 off admission if you show you've downloaded one of its podcasts.) Minneapolis's innovative Walker Art Center has iPod docks in the lobby so you can download tours on the spot.
Perhaps even more interesting are unauthorized audio tours. In Slate's guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan (slate.com/id/2123266), which includes a printable PDF map of the tour, you can listen to art critic Lee Siegel seethe over "Therese Dreaming," a 1938 Balthus painting. "I think Balthus is one of the most overrated painters in this museum," he says. "Please pass into the next room." Like his TV shows and guidebooks, Rick Steves's podcast tours of Paris's Musee d'Orsay and Louvre are informative, with a dose of cornball humor (ricksteves.com). BBC host Paul Rose leads wacky, 25-minute tours in six U.K museums in his "Take One Museum" series (bbc.co.uk).
Because these podcasts are so new and topics change frequently, a comprehensive list of where they're offered is hard to come by. MuseumPods.com welcomes museums to submit audio tours; at last check, there were 22. A search for "museum podcast" at iTunes returned more than 30 tours.
For those who don't own an iPod, some museums, including the Walker Art Center and the San Jose Museum of Art, offer cell-phone tours. Dial the numbers listed in museum handouts or on plaques near sculptures and paintings to listen to artists and curators discussing the works at hand. Like podcasts, cell-phone tours are free for the time being, but the minutes are on you if you go over your monthly allotment.
iPod tour help desk
Getting audio files onto your iPod can be complicated. If you're downloading MP3 files directly from a website, rather than from an aggregator service like iTunes, you might have to save the files to a folder on your desktop. If you have a Mac, click on the files and they should move to your iTunes and start playing. If they don't, or if you have a PC, drag them in yourself. You can also download podcasts automatically through iTunes: Go to the "Subscribe to Podcast" option, and then manually paste the feed (links ending in .xml) into the box that pops up.