I experienced “Chinatown Audio Tour” along with my friend June two days ago. As part of our class assignment, we downloaded an mp3, printed a map, and toured New York City’s Chinatown. The following is my reflection on it in the context of museums and audio tours.
(The assignment requires us to reflect on how this tour could be adapted in a museum setting. My initial reaction was a condemnation of my own borrowed role as a tourist seeking images, however what I present here are more reserved reactions and practical lessons from the same. I feel I will have a forever complex relationship, often conflicted, with museums and tourism.)
The Storyteller and his audiences
This tour had the voice of a resident of Chinatown and not an objective researcher or curator as the author. However, considering the narrator’s lived experience, the content of the tour surprisingly seemed to be mostly reaffirming the stereotypes about Chinatown. Be it the music, the gangs, opium, gambling or the spiritual finale, it lacked multiple perspectives, or conflict. Perhaps, when adapted for a museum, there could be stories from different stakeholders and the plural identities of those living in or engaging with Chinatown.
Also, the role of the storyteller, seemed to fix my role as the audience too, which at a personal level, appeared to be of a passive tourist. I had assumed prior to the tour that I would be more actively shaping my walk, and hence the learning and experience, however the narrator established that these were his lanes, where he grew up, and the design of the tour constantly reminded of my role as an outsider seeking perhaps an alienated experience. This reminder of a borrowed otherness was a part of my entire experience of the tour and I wonder if this is also due to my personal discomfort with seeking “authentic” experiences.I wonder if this is also due to the headphones in an audio guide, which might make one feel isolated from the immediate surrounding and social life.
Technology and isolation in a social space
Where I wanted to break free from the audio tour in the city and interact with my environment during the tour, the museum being a controlled environment, would be a different experience. The simulation and explanation of microcosms through sound could be adapted for an exhibition or installation for a richer experience and information. However, in trying to re-create this audio-guide for the museum, a concern would be to not create something that seems to orientalise a complex part of the city.
My experience of the tour was significantly shaped by the fact that June and I could pause and discuss with each other. People often visit museums in groups or pairs, and it is as much a social experience as it is informative or an individual pursuit of knowledge. Could the audio guide in museum allow for dialogue among participants? What would be the social objects in the museum setting to bring participants together and create a discursive space between perspectives not only from those who have lived in Chinatown but also those who are traversing Chinatown through the medium of exhibition.
Even if an individual participant chooses to engage on their own, how would they have a dialogue with the storyteller? Could there be an app for live conversation with the storyteller/s? A feedback mechanism would make the museum experience more dialogic. Could the storyteller join us at some point in the tour? Perhaps there could be an element of surprise.
Where June and I created our own moments of rupture or reflection, the museum audio guide, even for individuals, could have moments of pause or different points to enter the narrative. We used the map to navigate through the lanes, much like navigation in a museum. We also informed ourselves through signs and symbols we saw, through the smell and taste of food, and several other cues in our environment. The ability to inform ourselves through a living experience could perhaps be transferable in a museum through trans-media inputs and sensorial experiences.
Navigation and Access
I was curious during the tour as to how it should be redesigned to serve all audiences, particularly in light of Chinatown’s partnership with the ADA. Unlike this audio tour where the participants are informed to ensure their own safety, the museum staff and other participants would be responsible to ensure access and safe engagement of all participants.
In this audio guide, I felt that we perhaps travelled across timescapes. Right next to the synagogue, we got introduced to men standing on the tenements’ staircase, a reality of Chinatown as a gendered space due to exclusionary acts, but not what it is today. However the spaces we walked through and the corresponding narration were also often in the present. Could the audio tour/device in the museum allow for travelling across different time periods in the same space? Instead of a linear progression in storyline, could the audio device in museum allow for the complex co-existence of timescapes as experienced on the tour? How would we design the space such that it is not reduced to a singular object to be consumed?
I felt particularly invasive when we had to enter the senior citizens’ centre. It reminded me of Timothy Mitchell’s “The World as Exhibition” when he mentions “a place where one was continually pressed into service as a spectator by a world ordered so as to represent”
I should also be fair to the purpose of this audio guide itself. Who is it for? I am assuming, it is for tourists or people curious about a part of the city they are not acquainted with or want to further explore, and this is an initiation into that. Considering tourism to be a significant part of Chinatown’s economy, this audio guide does seem aligned.
Mitchell, Timothy. “The World as Exhibition.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no.2 (1989): 217–36. Accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/178807.
Kuo Wei Tchen, John. “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer and Steven D. Lavine, 285-327. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.