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Introducing the Preston Manor audio guide

Published by: Kevin Bacon
Person holding a phone while using audio guide in Preston Manor

This summer we’ve been working with a group of volunteers to produce a new audio guide for Preston Manor.

We’re soft-launching the guide this week in order to test and tweak it so that it can be part of the visitor offer when the manor reopens in 2023.

You can try it right now at or read on to find out more about how — and why — we made it.

Person holding a phone while using audio guide in Preston Manor
Drawing Room of Preston Manor

Mobile but not monovocal

There are so many tales we can tell about a building like Preston Manor, but how best to tell them? If we use too many text panels they become off-putting to visitors: no one wants to spend their time in a visitor attraction reading, and they can also ruin the sense of the house as a place that was once lived in.

Audio guides are a great way of telling stories in historic houses, as spoken words can augment what the visitor sees. It’s also possible to deliver these quite cheaply. Our Royal Pavilion audio guide shows how easily spoken word storytelling can be presented through a visitor’s mobile phone. It’s no more than a simple WordPress website but it’s used by over 200 visitors a day.

The difficult part is creating the content. Audio guide specialists use scriptwriters and actors to produce polished, edited tours. Aside from the cost of this approach there is another downside: it feels increasingly irrelevant. Given the popularity of podcasts — many of which are conversational and derive their value from the personality of the speakers — do people really want the anonymous authority of the traditional museum audio guide?

Done badly, this approach is downright monotonous. Even if done well, museum audio guides are often rigidly monovocal — a single, all-knowing voice.

Drawing Room of Preston Manor
Group of volunteers interviewing a museum expert

New voices

Thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund we’ve had a chance to shake up this formula. We successfully applied for funding from their Digital Volunteering programme for a project entitled Telling Tales and Talking Trails (TTTT), a set of experiments in which we work with volunteers to develop more inclusive ways of storytelling.

The Preston Manor audio guide is the first product to emerge through TTTT. This is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but support from NLHF has not only given us the resources to do this, it’s also provided the opportunity to do this differently.

Rather than try to tell the story of the manor ourselves, we invited nine volunteers to take up the task. Over the course of five workshops in June and July, the volunteers had the chance to research the manor through exploring the rooms, talking to our in-house experts, and reading various archival sources. Along the way, we’ve provided training in interview and storytelling techniques, and the experience of recording audio in a makeshift (but very effective) sound booth.

Group of volunteers interviewing a museum expert
Volunteers seated at table and laughing

Dairy Milk vs Quality Street

So has this approach worked?

What’s undoubtedly true is that the Preston Manor audio guide feels very different to the traditional museum audio tour. Aside from being credited and voicing their own stories, each of our volunteers provides an individual perspective on the house.

Some are very descriptive of what can be seen and why it is there. Others are more speculative, wondering how the rooms and the objects would have been used by the house’s residents. Some are even voiced as the characters who worked in the manor during its Edwardian heyday.

In short, it’s a much more polyvocal take on the house. Rather than a single narrator leading the visitor, the journey is enlivened by a cast of enthusiastic and inventive storytellers. When following the guide, each room on the tour will feel very different in tone and style to the last.

To use a confectionery analogy, if the traditional museum audio guide is like a bar of Dairy Milk — once you start eating it, you pretty much know what you’re going to get all the way through — this is more like a tin of Quality Street. You don’t know what you’re going to get when you dive into the tin, some you may like more than others, but the variety is part of the experience.

From the feedback I’ve received so far, people find this variety appealing. The shifts in tone and narrative style provide small surprises and changes in rhythm, so the tour feels less tedious than traditional guides. And the enthusiasm of our volunteers is evident at every point.

Volunteers seated at table and laughing
Man using audio guide

Try for yourself

Although we’re still in the process of testing and tweaking the guide, it is live and ready to use.

Preston Manor will remain open until Sunday 30 October, after which it will be closed for general visitors until the summer season of 2023. (Although look out for our Christmas themed escape rooms with Pier Pressure.)

Although it’s designed to be enjoyed while in the house, the audio guide can be accessed online from any web browser. Do dive in, and let us know what you think using our online survey.

Man using audio guide
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My thanks go to several colleagues and collaborators who helped make the guide happen.

Paula Wrightson, a longstanding Venue Officer at Preston Manor, generously shared her vast knowledge of the house with our volunteers and consistently kept the team going with coffee.

Dr Craig Jordan-Baker, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Brighton, developed the session plan and proved an inspirational teacher to us all.

Consultants Charlotte Petts and Chris Thorpe-Tracey shared interviewing and recording tips while keeping everyone relaxed during the recording process.

Most of all, I’m most grateful to our brilliant team of volunteers, whose enthusiasm remained undimmed, even though they gave up several Saturday mornings during the summer to spend time in a children’s lunch room.

Mark Benson

Andrew Bradstreet

Sarah Johnson

Emma Kelly

Lesley Morrill

Ellen O’Connor

Daniel Smith

Liam Spinage

Megan Stratford

Thanks also, of course, to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for supporting this work.

Kevin Bacon, Head of Digital

Photo credits: JJ Waller

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