Get away from museum boredom with iPod tours and podcasts.
There’s a lot more to your MP3 player than the latest Shins jam on endless repeat. Podcasts—those wonderful digital recordings you can take on the road—are now available from several Chicago museums. Download one and learn about planets or constitutional rights at home, or break out your player at the galleries and listen to an audio tour. Here, we sample five museums’ offerings. The best part? They’re all free.
If you’d like to check out the International Space Station from your front porch, look to the sky 45 to 90 minutes after sunset or before sunrise; it will be low to the horizon, blinking across the night sky in three or four minutes (see heavens-above.com for exact locations). We learned this—and a whole bunch of other sky-gazing tidbits—by tuning into Adler Planetarium’s biweekly Night and Day podcast, a combination of constellation forecasts for the fortnight and space-related trivia. It’s cool stuff, but you’ve got to listen hard: The narrator talks at, ahem, light speed. It took us two tries to discern the space station stuff, and we still haven’t quite figured out how or where to look for Jupiter. Grab a notebook, give it a listen or three, and start scribblin’.
The Field Museum’s permanent collection’s audio tour is, in a word, huge. At 30.4 MB, it’s a download that screams “Go make a waffle, dial-up user.” But the big file’s worth the wait: Guided by Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s quiz show, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the tour not only takes a close look at artifacts, it also explains the museum’s history and motivation for displaying the items. At the “Shoe Wall,” Sagal chats about cultural diversity and elaborates on a tiny embroidered pair of shoes, part of the historical Chinese tradition of women’s foot binding. Don’t have a foot fetish? You can skip exhibits by printing out a copy of the audio tour’s map (or pick one up at the ticket booth), and start at any of the 19 numbered stops.
Art Institute of Chicago
Musecast, a 14-minute, mock news–style radio program, features human-interest stories and teasers for upcoming exhibitions and events. But it doesn’t quite work the way it should. When we plugged into Musecast in late July, the AIC was still pumping out June’s podcast. And while some of the content was timeless—learning the history of Pullmantown (not art-related, strangely), for example—some teasers, including one for an artist talk with photographer Jeff Wall, had long passed. Looks like we’ll have to settle for checking out Wall’s photos before September—and his exhibition—ends.
Chicago History Museum
Second City provides a surprisingly elegant museum tour, downloadable for free at home (or $5 at the door). Rather than cramming the 43-minute tour with puns and one-liners, jokes are neatly woven into comedian Antoine McKay’s narration as he becomes each exhibit’s “characters”—French-accented map-maker Jacques Marquette, do-good department-store manager Marshall Field. And while some of the jokes fall flat—of the first El car, McKay quips, “We carbon-dated the gum”—they avoid taking a cavalier approach to heftier subjects. If the joking’s still too much for you, there’s also a misleadingly dubbed “teen tour,” created by Lake View High School students, which is seemingly appropriate for every museum patron.
McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum
While freedom is at the heart of this podcast series, baseball fans rejoice: Narrating and moderating the most recent installment of the museum’s monthly podcast is self-effacing investigative sports reporter Lester Munson. Along with a few other experts, he thoughtfully discusses First Amendment rights in the notorious BALCO investigation, the case involving Barry Bonds’s steroid use that changed journalistic source anonymity and professional sports. Like this broadcast, the others will make you think, be it about our nation’s ballparks or social freedoms in Tibet.