Best Museum Podcasts

Sound takes virtual visitors deep inside museum collections

The days of museums being contained within their walls are long over. Museums have been digitizing their collections and creating video content for their websites, but now podcasts offer an opportunity to truly go behind the scenes. Without the physical limitations that are inherent to producing visual content, museums can use sound to more fully explore their collections. Without an object as the primary focus, storytelling can be far more textured.

As early as 2006, before the first iPhone had even been released, museums were taking on the task of podcasts. At that time the challenge was to move beyond the ubiquitous Audioguide or Acoustiguide which featured authoritative voices of museum directors and curators. Suddenly, anyone could create a museum podcast. Anyone with an mp3 player could download it and arrive at the museum with content all ready to go. So museums began to create supplementary content for the exhibitions that museum visitors could listen to beyond the museum walls.

N...MOREow that podcasting has become fully mainstream, museums are stepping up once again to create even higher quality stories that move beyond interviews with curators or scientists. Rather than trying to just supplement the museum experience, podcasts can now deal all the material in their collection, not just what is on display. While some museums like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are using their podcasts to more widely share their lectures, interviews and concerts, others like The Met are breaking new ground with podcasts that they consider works of art unto themselves. 

Here's a round-up of the best, most innovative museum podcasts that you should download and listen to right now.

  • 01 of 09
    National Museum of the American Indian
    ••• Smithsonian Museums offer free admission. Public domain

    Brand new but already receiving rave reviews, Sidedoor is a new podcast produced by the Smithsonian. The name refers to a more private entrance, one where usually only staff can enter the museum, thus offering special access to listeners to see what happens behind and beyond the exhibition space. 

    "Sidedoor is a podcast only the Smithsonian can bring you. It tells stories about science, art, history, humanity and where they unexpectedly overlap. From dinosaurs to dining rooms, this podcast connects big ideas to the people who have them."

    The podcast has been produced in-house at the Smithsonian and includes participation from over 100 employees at all levels of the museum from curators, animal keepers and security guards. Given the tremendous size and breadth of the Smithsonian's collections and resources, this podcast will certainly never lack for fascinating story ideas.

    How to listen: Download episodes on iTunes or Google Play

  • 02 of 09
    "The Memory Palace" podcast
    ••• The Met's season of "The Memory Palace" podcast. Metropolitan Museum of Art

    The Met has taken podcasting to the next level by commissioning sound artist Nate DiMeo to create a podcast about the The American Wing within the context of the museum at large. Much more than a focused view of a collection, each episode promises to be a sonic exploration that places the listener inside the story rather than just gazing at an object.

    This Met focused season of The Memory Palace, already a popular museum podcast, is part of the Museum's MetLiveArts Artist-in-Residence program and will span the 2016/2017 season. 

    The Met explains:

    "Ancient Greeks and Romans used a mnemonic device called a "memory palace" to help them remember the complicated and numerous details of their orations. They would visualize the intricacies of the stories by constructing in their minds an elaborate, yet familiar, place: a memory palace."

    With well over 100 previous episodes already completed, "The Memory Palace" doesn't just tell a story about a work of art, rather...MORE it creates a world for the story that allows listeners to truly step inside that world and see it from the inside out. 

    Though DiMeo is based in Los Angeles, he has been spending a lot of time in New York, exploring The Met's galleries, talking with curators as well as looking at the considerable number of works that are in storage at the Museum.

    How to listen: The Met's season of The Memory Palace can be downloaded on their website or you can subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.

  • 03 of 09
    International Spy Museum
    ••• "Spycast" is International Spy Museum's podcast. Ben Stanfield

    The International Spy Museum offers a weekly SpyCast which features interviews and programs with ex-spies, intelligence experts and espionage scholars.  The host is Dr. Vince Houghton, historian and curator and an expert on intelligence, diplomacy, military history and the late-WWII and early Cold War eras. 

    This podcast has been going strong since 2006 which means the archives are deep and rich. A popular category is a series of "author debriefings" which included JFK's Forgotten Crisis, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War, and Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler. They also cover real spy stories as well as current events. 

    SpyCast has many raving fans with reviews from listeners who "can't get enough", find the stories "enthralling" and love that the Spy Museum is so prolific and able to release a new episode every week.

    How to listen: You can stream or download the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play on Android.

  • 04 of 09
    Rubin Museum of Art
    ••• "Mindfulness Meditation" podcast by the Rubin Museum of Art. Rubin Museum of Art

    The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City "is a dynamic environment that stimulates learning, promotes understanding, and inspires personal connections to the ideas, cultures, and art of Himalayan Asia."

    More than an art museum, it's really a cultural hub and a gathering place for people interested in Buddhism and meditation. (The first time I visited The Rubin, I was stunned to see the Dalai Lama also exploring the collections accompanied by his bodyguards.)

    As such, The Rubin releases a new podcast every Wednesday that serves as a 30-minute meditation session led by a prominent teacher from the New York area. Though it is not produced or specifically endorsed by the The Rubin, I have found the Bob Thurman Podcast to be an interesting way to learn about Buddhism and the beautiful works of art on display at The Rubin.

    How to listen: Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud or TuneIn Radio

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  • 05 of 09
    40-ton winged lion
    ••• Lammasu at the Oriental Institute Museum. Trjames

    Produced by the BBC, not a formal museum, the Museum of Lost Objects podcast is a series "tracing the stories of ten antiquities and cultural sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria." Faced with a crucial moment in time where fundamental works of our shared cultural patrimony are being destroyed, this podcast indeed serves a virtual museum for works that are now beyond traditional borders and lost on the black market.

    The podcast premiered in February 2016 with an episode devoted to the winged bulls of Niveneh which were destroyed by ISIS in a video that was shared worldwide. The series has also explored Palmyra, the destroyed minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, the Mar Elian monastery, sacred to both Christians and Muslims and a stolen Sumerian seal in Baghdad. 

    How to listen: Download the episodes on the BBC website or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play.

  • 06 of 09

    First Person: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    ••• Holocaust Museum's "First Person" podcast. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

    This podcast produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a series that features excerpts from 48 interviews with Holocaust survivors conducted at the Museum as part of their First Person public program.

    Though the recordings were all released in 2010, this continues to be a popular podcast on iTunes. And as more and more Holocaust survivors pass away, these stories become even more important testaments. Stories include Josiane (Josy) Traum discussing her memories of life in hiding at a Carmelite convent in Brugge, Belgium, Gerald Schwab sharing his experience of being drafted into the US Army in 1944 after fleeing Nazi Germany and Frank Liebermann discussing his life in Germany after the Nazis came to power.

    How to listen: Download all 48 episodes on the Museum's website or subscribe on iTunes.

  • 07 of 09
    William Merritt Chase at MFA Boston
    ••• William Merritt Chase exhibition. MFA Boston

    Produced by the New England Museum Association, the Museum People podcast "celebrates individuals connected with the museum field by highlighting their work, passions, opinions, and personalities. In each episode, you’ll hear stories and viewpoints from a variety of museum people, from unsung workers to executive directors, volunteers to trustees, as they help change the world one visitor at a time."

    Honestly, I was skeptical about this podcast at first, mostly afraid that it would be boring. But the hosts, NEMA Executive Director Dan Yaeger and Marieke Van Damme, director of the Cambridge Historical Society, are truly great audio personalities. They are now preparing for season 3 of Museum People, with each season containing 8 episodes.

    What I love about this podcast is that it washes away the snobbery that people can sometimes associate with such serious institutions as museums and truly does focus on the passionate people who work for them. (A museum career is certainly not...MORE one embarks on for the money.) The last episode of season 2 was an interview with a security guard, always the most unsung of museum employees and often the ones with the most insight about the visitor experience. 

    How to listen: Download episodes here or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play.

  • 08 of 09
    Tate Modern
    ••• Season 2 of Within the Wires Podcast set at Tate Modern. Tate Modern

    This audio drama calls it's second season “Museum Audio Tours,” and tells its story over the course of ten audio museum guides. Through ten years of worldwide exhibitions, these walks through the museum unravel the complex story of a mysterious disappearance at the Tate Modern in London.

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  • 09 of 09
    Novak confesses to an old museum prank
    ••• BJ Novak's 1997 museum prank. Jennifer Rocholl

    Ok, this is not a real podcast, but a hilarious prank that was pulled in 1997 and is now available on iTunes. Comedian and writer B.J. Novak who most people know as Ryan from NBC's The Office was only 17-years old when he and friend Peter Nelson decided to record their very own fake audio tour of the MFA Boston. He explains: 

    "We snuck a tape out of the exhibit and took it home, where we transcribed all the information on the tape.  Then wrote our new tour – careful to make sure it corresponded to all the actual art in the exhibit.  We recruited a classmate with a Romanian accent to voice the narration, and borrowed CD’s of traditional Chinese music from the Newton Library for background music.  Then we made fifteen copies of the tapes, printed fifteen labels that looked exactly like the labels on the originals, and gathered a group of fifteen friends to take the audio tour together one Saturday – each of us slyly replacing the original tape with our new version while taking the...MORE tour, and then returning the audio players with the new tape inside, for the next round of museum-goers to receive."

    Novak didn't confess to the prank until 2011. The MFA Boston still has no comment. 

    Listen to it on iTunes.