Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary through an Audio Guide

Our Lady of Pomata
Unidentified artist, Cuzco, Peru, Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata, late 17th or 18th century, oil on canvas, The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2003.04.

A new rotation of miraculous paintings have gone on view at the Blanton as the second installment of the long-running exhibition, Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America. Originating from colonial-era South America and selected from the collection of Marilynn and Carl Thoma, the works are a window into a European tradition transformed by indigenous Andean artists. Each painting depicts a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary.  By copying the original statue, there was a belief that the painting was imbued with the same miraculous powers as the statue.

Museum educators help visitors understand first, why paintings were made of these statues, and second, why the Andean region became such an important center for these works. As the Museum Educator for University Audiences, Siobhan McCusker scours the intellectual resources of the diverse campus in order to find the perfect collaborators for the audio guide. As the lead for Digital Interpretation, Mary Myers creates a guide that transforms the substantial contextual information into a narrative that all visitors can understand. The timeline below captures Mary’s process through the months it takes an audio guide to unfold.


Since each exhibition at the Blanton is unique, we approach new installations with eyes wide open to various modes of interpretation. Wall labels are a traditional way of sharing information with museum visitors, but ever-evolving digital tools means new possibilities for digital interpretation. After considering and discussing varied multimedia approaches to interpretation, we decided to create an audio guide featuring voices of faculty and students from the university. As the participants are identified, they are given a checklist of paintings included in the exhibition so they may choose which work they would like to discuss. After a bit of jockeying, four excited academics each select a painting to speak about.


Recording participants for the audio guide is the first of many steps towards creating a cell phone audio tour. As participants confirm their schedules, I transform the Blanton’s auditorium into a recording studio. The session is an intimate and intellectual exchange between audio guide participants and museum educators. Though we encourage each participant to prepare a script, the sessions often veer into deeper investigations of the complex themes within each painting. All the while, I monitor the microphones and recording device for good audio levels and competing background noise. The speaker reads through the script multiple times throughout the session, ensuring that I will have a variety of tonal options when approaching the audio edit. As the session unfolds, participants begin to relax, and the read becomes more animated. As their scripted material peaks our curiosity, we try to tease out more detailed explanations, and their passion for the subject lights up the room.

Auditorium setup


One of my favorite parts of creating an audio guide is unearthing information that reaches far beyond what is offered on a wall label. Each participant brings their research efforts to life, and entries become personal expressions. However, with prolific content comes prolific edits. Though participants are asked to craft a script, the recording session often yields exciting unscripted content as well. Multiple takes of the script transition into more off-the-cuff research and anecdotes from the participant, and I consider all the recorded material when approaching my edits. I compare the numerous reads of the script alongside the unscripted content for the most compelling material from the session. Often, I am looking for moments when participants say something particularly illuminating or unique, listening for phrases that engage me as I hope they will engage a visitor. This hybrid edit expands on the speaker’s research, capitalizes on the fluidity of the recording session, and creatively combines the two into one piece of content.

Susan Deans Smith, Associate Professor in the Department of History, speaks about Our Lady of Pomata on the audio guide.


The complex stories behind the miraculous statue paintings, the religious characters represented within, and the motivations of their indigenous Andean creators can be difficult to grasp, so I rely on fresh ears to measure success. Making research come to life for visitors in language they can understand within a two minute sound byte is a constant challenge, so sharing creative edits with staff and soliciting feedback is a crucial step in creating a well-received audio guide. The edits make their way around the Education and Curatorial staff, and everyone is struck by the excitement evident in each entry. As historical research is exposed and religious folklore unveiled, our curiosity begs to hear Marilynn Thoma who, along with her husband Carl, amassed the impressive collection of Spanish Colonial art. What drew them to collect these paintings? Why is she so invested in researching their origins? What inspires her to share her collection with our audience? Since Marilynn is based in Chicago, we decide to approach her about doing a record session over the phone. She agrees, and we schedule the session for early July.


The fiery red walls that served as the backdrop for the first installment of Virgin Mary paintings are replaced by a fresh coat of cool blue as the Odom gallery is transformed for the next year of viewing.   The paintings arrive and we get to witness them in-person for the first time. After only seeing digital images of the paintings on a screen, I am surprised by many new observations. The scale of some works is surprising: larger than anticipated. The detail of flowers and faces are exponentially more intense than any image file can express. That same week, we get a chance to speak with Marilynn Thoma and authentically share in her excitement for the objects and all the research they have inspired. I put her phone recording session through its paces and all audio guide edits are finalized just in time for the exhibition’s opening weekend. I load the edited audio files onto the Guide By Cell platform and we listen to each stop in front of its corresponding painting for the first time.

Installation view
Installation view of Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary

Only about two minutes of the recorded material will make it into the final audio guide edit, but the rest of the audio content will have a life beyond the cell phone tour that visitors find in the galleries. The Education Department is interested in making as much of the captured content available to gallery teachers and docents who will be leading tours through the museum. Future researchers will also have the benefit of accessing the extended audio files to help further their own knowledge of associated topics.

Special thanks to our Audio Guide participants:

Susan Deans Smith
Associate Professor in the Department of History

Alexandra Madsen
Master’s Student in the Department of Art History

Jorge Canizares Esguerra
Professor in the Department of History

Juan Carlos DeOrellana
Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History

Marilynn Thoma
Chicago-based collector of Spanish Colonial Paintings and member of the Blanton’s National Leadership Board

Mary Myers is the Blanton’s Media Coordinator and leads Digital Interpretation for the Education Department.

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