The concept of experiencing visual art through sound seems, at face value, to be a difficult proposition to bring into being. How do you get someone to see a work of art in their mind’s eye if they’ve never seen it before? How do you enable a listener to picture something if they aren’t able to look at an image of it? The creator of Accession, T.H. Ponders, has cracked that code with the philosophy that seeing artwork doesn’t mean you necessarily are experiencing it just with your eyes. In his own words:
Accession is a podcast that aims to recontextualize the art in museums, providing museum goers with new ways to experience the art … Whether you’re an art historian or you’ve never been to an art museum; whether you’re listening from the comfort of home, on your commute, or you’re joining me in the gallery Accession brings all of the beauty of art museums and the little known stories of a personal guide right to the palm of your hand.
Each episode of Accession starts with a description of how to find the artwork in question, a narrated map of where to turn and what stairs to take in the museum it hangs in, and that steady structure may not help me from my place on the couch, but it’s a steady cue for ‘it’s time to immerse yourself in art’. Even when the episode style takes us far from the museum itself, this is always how it starts, as though Ponders is guiding the listener down into a meditative space, a space that everyone is encouraged and allowed to access.
Art is for everyone, and this podcast makes it accessible to blind and visually impaired listeners who want to experience a certain piece. It helps all listeners imagine what the artwork is like, what it resembles, what it evokes, and most importantly, what it speaks to. Art, especially the art found in museums, is often considered inaccessible to people without diplomas and degrees, uninterpretable by people who have not spent time in the ivory tower of the university system. Accession makes an effort not just to experience visual art in a different context, but to make it accessible by always choosing new ways to explore it, ways that click together with the greater context surrounding the art piece. There’s always a union between the artwork, its historical context, and Ponders’ decision for the episode.
For instance, “Three Ghosts” surrounds a marble sculpture titled The Ghost from Hamlet and is presented through three different forms of Shakespeare’s work Hamlet. Ponders first recites a poem he himself wrote about the sculpture, and then actors from We Fix Space Junk perform a few scenes from Hamlet itself. Finally, Ponders sings and Casey Dawson performs a comedic song about Hamlet by George Cruikshank, the melody of which came from Ponders and the arrangement from Dawson. These are all textured differently—the scenes from the play have night-time soundscapes and immersive sound effects and the song’s musical arrangement is immediately recalls music from Shakespearean courts.
Or in episode nine, “Changing Landscapes”, you can experience an episode designed to appeal to a younger crowd, called Accession for Kids. The entire episode is written in verse, about the painting Looking East to Denny Hill, and Ponders provides a fun map and worksheet for kids, as well as a version of the episode without music for listeners with auditory processing issues. I loved this episode’s whimsy, even though I am not a kid. Episode twelve, “Mysterious Smile”, is about the French portrait painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and every piece of music in the episode was composed and played by women, a detail which moved me deeply.
Ponders’ design and decisions are deliberate, conscientious, and thoughtful. I have honestly never had a bad experience with Accession, from the audio quality to the sound engineering to the narration style and form. It’s a moment to spend enjoying art, through whatever beautiful audio story Ponders has stitched together.
Header image from the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism.