Is Podcasting Interpretation?

By Nadia Abraham and Shiralee Hudson Hill, Art Gallery of Ontario

It seems like everybody has a podcast these days. Museums across the globe are no exception. Yet, podcasting as a form of exhibition interpretation is still a relatively untapped field. Enter the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Into the Anthropocene podcast series.

This series was a first foray into podcasting for the AGO, so we knew we had to approach it as a pilot project and learn along the way. But let’s rewind a little: what inspired us to embark on this journey?

Into the Anthropocene podcast logo, © Art Gallery of Ontario.

We conceived of the podcast in the early days of planning for the multi-venue exhibition Anthropocene. Canadian artists Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier worked together to create a new series of photographs, films, murals, and augmented reality (AR) installations that reveal the many ways human beings have altered the planet. The works connect audiences to the concept of the recently proposed geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, which encompasses the period during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the earth. Featured simultaneously at the AGO and the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ontario from September 2018 until early 2019, the exhibition astounded visitors with not only the beauty of the works but also the scope of human impact on earth explored within. The artists’ points of view served as inspiration for the entire planning team. The unofficial thesis underscoring the exhibition content was to “be revelatory, not accusatory.”

During initial meetings with the exhibitions’ curators, our minds immediately leapt to the idea of creating a podcast. The social, scientific, political, and historical issues surrounding the Anthropocene are so vast and complex; we knew we would not be able to explore the depth and breadth of the topics with traditional exhibition graphics or labels. A podcast would enable us to explore questions sparked by the exhibition and create a dynamic space for a diversity of perspectives.

And so we produced and launched Into the Anthropocene, a podcast series that dives deep into the issues connected to this complex topic. Through the podcast, we centered the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples living in North America, alongside Canadian and international voices. Together, they offered their views on climate change, decolonization, biodiversity, and urbanization.

We produced the podcast ourselves, in-house. Over the course of our 7-episode series (plus one bonus episode), we invited scientists, writers, artists, poets, scholars, and activists to tackle critical topics related to the significant signature humans are leaving on the earth.

We made it a priority to feature Indigenous voices at the forefront of the podcast, starting with our host Sarain Fox. Sarain is an Anishinaabe dancer, activist, television host, and storyteller. Her dedication, generosity, and creativity throughout the entire process continues to inspire us.

From left to right: Host Sarain Fox, Nicholas de Pencier, producers Shiralee Hudson Hill and Nadia Abraham, Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky. Photograph by Sarain Fox.

And now, some reflection. Did our pilot succeed?

  • We started with a goal of 10,000 listens and drumroll…we’ve had almost 13,000 total listens to date (65% Soundcloud, 35% Apple Podcasts)! And those numbers continue to grow.
  • Apple Podcasts named us one of the TOP 10 Canadian podcasts of 2018, and we won a MUSE award from the American Alliance of Museums for our work.

And what did we learn from our podcasting crash-course?

Improvisation is welcome, but definitely write a script: determine the “so what?” of each episode and break your scripts up into short, digestible sentences.

Consider timing, always: if your podcast depends on the availability of people outside of your institution, build this into your schedule.

Scope management: start with an understanding of the resources available to you, and plan your project scope from there. The scope runs from the number of guests booked per episode to time spent editing.

Choose your platform carefully: When deciding which platforms will host your podcast, ask yourself if you imagine the podcast continuing within the institution long-term. If so, stick to services like Apple Podcasts and Google Play, where you can build on a base of subscribers.

Understand your podcast’s identity: If your goal is to build a podcast program, a general name with a single brand-identity is your best strategy. Into the Anthropocene could have been a “season” of an umbrella AGO podcast. The graphic identity of your podcast logo is also critical. If you want your logo to stand out, use bold, simple graphics, and large, legible text (but not too much of it)!

Podcast recording with Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky and Sarain Fox. © Art Gallery of Ontario

Happy podcasting!

About the Authors

Nadia Abraham is an interpretive planner and audience researcher at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She attended Queen’s University, where she completed her honours degree with a specialization in history, English language and literature, and art history. Nadia is also a graduate of the Museum Studies Master’s program at the University of Toronto, where she focused on museum education and visitor motivations. Nadia’s research is centered on how visitors make meaning in museums, and she is interested in promoting in-gallery conversations about the social context of art, public memory and how museums can be active agents of decolonization.

An active member of the arts community for over twenty years, Shiralee Hudson Hill’s passion for arts, heritage and culture fuels her work as Lead Interpretive Planner at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Prior to joining the AGO 12 years ago, she worked on cultural projects worldwide as a consultant with the international museum planning firm Lord Cultural Resources. Previous positions with the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto have given her deep insight into the often complex nature of planning compelling visitor experiences in the museum setting. Shiralee has a Bachelor of Arts in Honours English from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and a master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto.

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