About that 1952 Sedelijk Museum audio guide, and a certain Willem Sandburg

Posted by on Tuesday May 19 2009

Over the last couple of weeks  – thanks in part to me also posting the news footage on the MCN listserv – I’ve received a number of questions about the 1952 Stedelijk Museum audio guide: how the technology worked, who developed it, why it was installed, and what the Dutch commentator says (see end for translation), etc.  The following is an attempt to answer these questions, edited together with aspects/idiosyncrasies I think still pertinent to museums today.

The technology for the Stedelijk audio guide was developed by the Dutch electronics company, Philips, and is probably best described as a closed-circuit short wave radio broadcasting system.  Essentially, the audio output of an analogue playback tape recorder served as the broadcast station, and transmission was via a loop aerial.  The audio would be broadcast through the aerial and picked up by listeners/visitors through a portable radio receiver with headphones, when inside the loop.

The system was actually developed for cinemas as a service to the hard-of-hearing.  (This is why the news-footage commentator opens with the quip: “This is not a meeting for the hard-of-hearing.”)  In cinemas the loop aerial would be installed around designated seats within a theatre hall.  Those visitors with hearing difficulties could request a receiver and headphones, and thus receive a personal and amplified version of the movie’s soundtrack when seated in one of the designated seats.

The Stedelijk Museum adopted an identical installation save that the loop-aerial was installed into the skirting board around the outside of the galleries.  This created a larger audio-capture zone, and so was more suited for group visits around a museum, rather than just an individual.

I think it’s interesting here to emphasise the fact that already in 1952 museums were using wireless networks for the delivery of content to visitors.  Although the difficulty of creating a network that provided coverage throughout a museum eventually led to these systems’ demise, the practice has today been resurrected, only that radio has been substituted by WIFI.  Hopefully we’re now better equipped to get over the same reception issues…

And on the hardware front, there’s mileage too in recognising that audio guides derived from a forefather of today’s Audio Induction Loop.  The past fifty years has seen a revolution in audio amplification for the hard-of-hearing: whereas in the 1950s, institutions – like the cinema – provided the hardware and installed the network, now they need only provide the network, i.e. the Audio Induction Loop.  That’s because the hard-of-hearing own their own hardware, a hearing aid, which they use everyday of their life. I think this is a fascinating ‘echo’ for museums today, as we look to move away from owning and distributing handheld guides, preferring instead for visitors to use their cell phones to receive content from a museum-provided, wireless internet network.

Discovering how the system worked was the easy part: uncovering ‘why’ the museum decided to install it was a little more difficult. (Does that sounds familiar?)  Whilst I found no single source in the Stedelijk Museum archive that answered the question, I’ve deduced the following:

The system was launched for a high-profile temporary exhibition entitled ‘Vermeer: Real or Fake’.  Its function was to provide foreign language tours to visitors.  Since the audio was broadcast silently into the galleries – all visitors with an audio guide would receive/hear the identical audio simultaneously – the foreign language ‘tours’ had to be staggered throughout the day: the technology did not allow them to be run concurrently, (I’ll get onto multi-frequency broadcasts in my next post).  The start of each tour would be announced over the public address system.  And I never found out if visitors were charged extra for taking the tour, though the news footage suggest they were not.

In terms of the visitor service this system provided, arguably, it provided few benefits over a trained docent: visitors still had to arrive at the museum at a pre-determined time to take the tour, and many visitors, like today, expressed a preference for docent over recorded lecture. As the news footage observes however, it did allow the silent peace of the galleries to be preserved. (I’m biting my tongue!)

But I would position this audio guide as about more than just its function: it was also about an ambition to re-conceive the visitor’s relationship with the museum, an ambition which continues today as we explore the potential of IPhone applications and of social networking principles within the gallery space.  In the 1950s at the Stedelijk Museum, the driving force was Willem Sandberg, director of the museum from 1945 to 1968, and internationally recognised for his contribution to many of today’s ‘modern’ museum practices.  As James Bradburne wrote in the foreword to my book:

‘Willem Sandburg, … , who pioneered the first museum audio tour, also pioneered unjustified text (flush left, with equal word spacing), which he believed challenged convention and had important social overtones.  Sandburg was among the first to recognize the importance of the visitor’s as well as the museum’s voice, and to argue that they consist of a dialogue, and not a ‘top-down’ lecture.  Along with Marshall McLuhan, Sandburg was among the first to champion the ways in which the museum had to transform itself – long before the technology was available to do so.”

Other museum practices for which Sandburg deserves credit for pioneering include non-chronological hangs and the museum cafes: for the latter, gallery space was actually reclaimed!

Sandburg’s ideas caused a stir among the museum community, and the audio guide was no different.  Its launch coincided with the ICOM international conference, held in Amsterdam that year, and it’s ‘stir’ was felt internationally, and in few places more so that at American Museum of Natural History in New York, who promptly deciding to develop a similar system.  One of Sandburg’s contemporaries (while admittedly referring to a subsequent installation of the audio guide) enthused:

“The possibilities of this device are so great that in the future short wave lectures cannot be ignored by any museum.  In the future shortwave lectures discussing individual works of art will be installed in such a way that they can be heard by any visitor, at will.”

Above all, I believe that it was the innovation and potential embodied within the audio guide that best explains why the Stedelijk Museum ‘invented’ it.  Whilst one could claim that what was achieved by the system could have been achieved through trained docents, this is too narrow a perspective.  After all, this innovation went on to spawn what was arguably the most successful museum technology of the 20th century, and one of the most exciting of the early 21st century.

I’ve posted more images of the Stedelijk Museum audio guide, together with photos of other – as yet unsorted – handheld guide installations from around the world, onto Flickr.  See


‘This is not a meeting for the hard-of-hearing.  Rather these people are visitors of the Amsterdam Stedelijk museum, who are being guided in a special, modern way.  Via a hearing-aid/listening-device, they are given explanations and are guided to the different artworks.  The spoken text is recorded in various different languages onto a so-called ‘tape-recorder’.

[French language audio]

The audio from the magnetic tape goes via an amplifier to a ring-wire/antenna that is located along the baseboard/skirting of the galleries. The broadcast that comes from the ring-wire, makes it possible to pick-up the spoken word through a simple hearing aid with built in reel/spool, without disturbing the peace in the museum.

The earplugs are being carefully disinfected every time after use. Every visitor now receives such a device, and follows via the ingenious system the directions and indication of an invisible guide.

[Voice of guide; "Here we are standing in front of one of the incredulous falsifications by 'van Megeren' of Vermeer. The holes in the canvas are imputed to the forceful attempts by van Megeren to give the canvas an 'old' look. And if you all look to the right, at the original drawing of van Megeren, you will also see that there is great similarity between this head and that of the Christ-figure in the so-called Vermeer. And now we move on to the next example."]

This dutch scoop in this way of guiding, has generated interest abroad.”

5 Responses to “About that 1952 Sedelijk Museum audio guide, and a certain Willem Sandburg”

  1. MuseiTeknik
    May 22nd, 2009 05:40

    Thanks for the contemporary archaeology. The posting on MCN, the pics and clip etc! I also think it’s interesting from the point of view of sponsors and sponsorship relations between museums and large corporations, in the placement and promotion of technological products. I didn’t know that Philips also invented the audio cassette tape in 1963, the home VCR player in ’72…um, and the CD in 1980 (a bit familiar!), all very fine platforms which of course haven’t been strangers in the world of museums… Corporations still throw a keen eye on museums (well, maybe not in times of very deep recession). I read an article, that in the late 90′s a group in a large European car company’s IT division were toying with ideas of developing a kind of CMS! (which I don’t think ever became anything) Museums as part-public testbed / part corporate-public goodwill effort?

  2. amalyah
    June 16th, 2009 07:37

    Willem Sandberg was the first Art Advisor for the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. I remember him. His influence on the Museum can still be felt. He designed our logo, in fact.

  3. Loic Tallon
    June 23rd, 2009 06:03

    Fascinating to hear about Sandberg’s contribution to the Israel Museum too: it looks like this man is a bit of an unsung hero of the museum world!

    Another random fact about him: in the 1970s, he was VP of the architect selection panel at the Pompidou Centre, apparently championing the case for Renzo Piano.

  4. Alex
    January 5th, 2011 06:26

    A fantastic post Loic, but I’d love to see the clip of people using the technology. Does anyone have a link to where it can be found? I find it really intriguing how the museum took such a brave step forward to introduce something which is now so integral to both museums’ research and also the visitors’ experience.

  5. Nancy Proctor
    September 4th, 2012 02:10

    I was just rereading this post – the Stedelijk Museum tour is such an important part of mobile history, and Loic’s insights are important in understanding both the past and the potential of mobile in museums. I think the founding relationship between accessibility and mobile in museums is critical, and will continued to inspire some of the most innovative uses of mobile platforms as well as transformative applications of universal design.

    The Flickr link doesn’t seem to work anymore, but here’s the link to the original film:

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