Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789): A Binaural Audio Experience

How do you create a “you-are-there” audio experience, when the “there” in question is a palace on another continent, in an entirely different century? For The Met’s exhibition Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789), we created a fresh take on the traditional audio tour: an immersive audio experience produced with binaural recording methods. Bringing alive impressions of those who visited the palace and court in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it presents adaptations of their written accounts dramatized within atmospheric 3-D soundscapes. Listeners reported a visceral engagement with the exhibition’s stories and a richer contextual understanding of the objects on display. As one visitor said: “It’s like eavesdropping on history.”

To create soundscapes that mimic our natural experience of sound in 3-D, we used binaural audio recording methods for dialogue, sound effects, and music. Picture it this way: You’re on a street corner in New York. On your right, the crowd bustles past on the sidewalk. On your left, your friend whispers in your ear. Above you, a helicopter. Below you, the subway. It’s 360-degree “surround sound,” but courtesy of your own two ears. Our ears let us know not just how close things are, and in what direction, but also about the environment itself. For example, whether a room has a high or low ceiling, is carpeted, wood-paneled, etc. Binaural audio therefore offers the rich dimensionality and immediacy of our normal hearing, sometimes so acutely that listeners describe the uncanny feeling that they’re sharing physical space with those speaking.

The goal was simple: to support the curator’s interpretive goals for the exhibition by bringing alive visitors’ accounts of Versailles. We aimed to make the visitors’ emotions contagious—whether they be excitement, curiosity, awe, irritation, humiliation, or delight. Instead of traditional commentary by experts about specific objects, this project foregrounds the vivid, contextual, and very human commentary from an array of lively primary-source material—all dramatized by a dozen international actors. Our goal was to bridge the centuries-old gap between those historic visitors and The Met’s visitors today.