Audio guide brings sound, savvy to enhance Clark gallery

Like so many students at Williams College, I’ve been to the Clark Art Institute several times in the past three years: for class, for my own pleasure, to show off to parents and visitors, and so on. However, despite my high rate of visitation, I was impressed and pleasantly surprised on my last trip there. The Clark has finally taken that final, long-waited step that all museums must take: the implementation of the audio guide.

Yes, now you too can pay a mere $3 and be one of those people. Finally you can walk amongst all of that beautiful, natural art with a digital machine attached to your ear for the duration of your stay. Just throw a camera around your neck and you’ll be a prime specimen of true museum tourist, not concerned with sacrificing cool looks in exchange for gaining the full 21st century museum experience.

My comments may seem rather snide, but in fact, the Clark Art Institute really has succeeded in enhancing the experience of an already amazing museum. I was simply using humor as a journalistic tool to gain favor with my readers. I’ll admit it: my prior experience with audio guides is limited; nevertheless, I can safely say that the experience has been mostly a bad one.

Yet the Clark impressed me, using simplicity in their design and not trying to overwhelm the listener with an overabundance of facts or with superfluous drama. I consider myself to be somewhat of a veteran at that museum, but I realized on this trip just how much I did not know about the institute’s history, its founders, and most importantly, its art.

The tour begins with a brief introduction in which I learn about the history of the buildings and the collection, as well as about the life of Sterling Clark and his wife, outlining their artistic interests, reasons for building the museum, and for putting it here in Williamstown. In addition, one is offered the option of learning about Clark himself in greater detail by simply typing in a given code onto the device’s keypad. It was this option in particular that I found to be most valuable to the success of the audio guide.

Now I could not only learn about the specific history and circumstances of a painting, but I was given the option to take my knowledge to the next level and learn a bit more about the artist behind the work. In my other experiences, these types of guides have provided me with nothing but a long-winded, melodramatic account of some other person’s idealization of what I’m looking at, not to mention something annoying and heavy to lug around with me.

There are only a couple of drawbacks that I could find in this new system. Certainly, my overall experience was better, as for the first time I was able to appreciate these fine works in a new, more informed light, but the guide does not cover the entirety of the collection. This certainly doesn’t mean that the guide is not worth the cost; on the contrary, there is still a great deal that is covered in the guide, especially among the more famous and (in my humble opinion) more impressive works. The Clark will no doubt work diligently to expand the range of the guide’s coverage, but until then, be careful not to neglect the works not featured specifically, for certainly there were gems among the works not chosen as of yet to be featured.

There was only one other problem that I noticed with the guide, but like the first, I’m sure that it will be remedied by time and demand. Despite my efforts, I was unable to secure a guide translated into a foreign language. Although I’m sure this isn’t too big a problem in Williamstown, the Clark should keep on its toes just in case.

So there you have it. I say, go check it out, because it’s cheap, fun, and you just might learn something (and it also feels like you’re carrying a cell phone around with you – I know we all miss them in this cell-free zone that we are trapped in). Oh, and try telling them you’re writing an article for the paper; maybe they’ll give you the guide for free. Worked for me.