Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Really Happens Out on Those Guided Tours?

Many historic sites spend a great deal of time thinking about, planning, moaning about the guided tours at their site.  Although there’s definitely mixed opinions about guided tours (see Susie Wilkening’s post here),  there’s no doubt that they’re still the primary way that many visitors experience historic homes.

I’m working with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site on a new interpretation of their historic house, thanks to the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.   As a part of the project I created an assessment form and staff and a small group of board members have headed off to visit  variety of historic homes and museums.

Because not everyone on the planning team could make all the site visits, the visitors have written visit reports for all of us, and as a group, they present a great picture of what’s right and what’s wrong with guided tours.  I won’t name the sites here, but as you read these excerpts, remember that these visitors are people who are already inclined to be historic house goers—they are college-educated, have a passion for art, history, or architecture, and already spend a substantial chunk of their professional or volunteer time involved with a historic house.  Their thoughtful reports made me want to visit some places;  put some places on my don’t bother list, and most of all, reminded me that what we think is happening is only sometimes happening in our visitor experiences.   And a caveat as well, these were visitors without families,  so there certainly is an entire other layer of experiences that are had by visitors.
A few of their thoughts:
Again and again, the guide would urge the visitors to imagine what [a president, the house resident] might have been feeling or thinking  as he walked up the very stairs we were walking up, or moving throughout the very same rooms we were moving through. The house served almost as a minimalist stage for the drama of [the president], the experience being very much  like participating in a one-man show, something along the lines of a somber  version of  “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” The guide was theatrical and captivating, excited about his subject and eager to connect to his audience.
I came away feeling that the goal, president or not, is conveying the importance of the individual’s ideas and achievements in the most powerful way possible.
One of the most interesting aspects of our visit to [historic site] was that each of us came away with very different experiences. This was one of my favorite visits for it had originality and took a very bold risk in its approach to presenting and interpreting the site. 
The risk was this: the onus of the quality of a visitor’s experience rested entirely on the virtuosity of the tour guide. Ours was a young post-grad type who I found totally resistable, perhaps due to his cornball jokes starting out. But once we were underway, his animation, knowledge and sheer passion for his subject took over and captivated his audience, at least me.
Our  guide was an affable man who couldn’t hide his pride and admiration for the project but warned us that he tended to ramble on and ramble on he did…. Though our guide did a decent job of discussing life at [historic house] and the restoration process, his lack of discipline in presentation made me wonder if I had reacted too harshly to the swiss watch precision of the other tours. The second floor was supposedly self-guided with some miscellaneous displays about the building but our eager guide followed us upstairs and kept talking.
This was the least satisfying of any of the tours I took on our junket, so it serves an important purpose of establishing an example of what to avoid. The guide seemed to be a staff person pressed into service perhaps due to a shortage of docents. She was not unpleasant but had a perfunctory, somewhat unsure and occasionally apologetic tone in her delivery. She did make it clear that they were undergoing some rethinking and re-organizing of their interpretive plan, but meanwhile “this is what we have” seemed to by the M.O.
The lesson learned here was clearly about the importance of defining your purpose to yourself before presenting it to others. What story is most important about your place? What story do you want the public to take away with them? What contribution does the existence of your place make to the greater understanding of our culture, our world, our history? None of these questions were even approached, much less answered  by this muddled and directionless tour. We couldn’t wait to leave.
Our guide was the dream docent that any museum would covet. A local woman of a certain age, she had been with the house for twelve years, since its opening to the public. She had such a wonderful comfort level with her material that I felt immediately well taken care of. She just had it in her bones. And yet there was not a trace of smugness – just a warm, chatty style ,no sense of memorizing a script, always ready to field any question at any time, and then expound upon it.
The team shared several take-away lessons about the work of interpretive planning.  They included:
  • The lesson learned for me here was clear: go big or go home
  • The entire experience draws the visitor into a very defined and vivid world with a very specific point of view. Lesson: a strong clear mission that is presented with consistency, both physically and thematically, is very powerful.
And there’s another important take-away for me—I often hear complaints about boards not understanding the work that museum professionals do.   These site visits deepened a group of board members' understandings not only about their own site, but about the work of interpretation.  Try taking your board members on a field trip—even to a nearby museum or historic site.   Anne Ackerson, in her blog, Leading by Design recently wrote a great post about fostering good ideas on a board—it’s exactly this kind of experience that can help lead to those new ideas and discoveries about the work your organization does.  How do you encourage your board to learn?


Ron Potvin said...

It struck me that most of the comments related to the style or quality of the guide, rather than the information they presented. The time, money and effort dedicated to creating an imaginative interpretation plan can be wasted (overstating a bit, perhaps) if visitors encounter a guide who is poorly trained, ill-prepared, or simply not the right type of person for the job. Yet for historic house museums, especially small and volunteer run organizations, finding, training, and retaining quality guides can be difficult if not impossible. The comments make it clear that while the docent can be the strong link in a carefully prepared interpretation plan, they are at least just as often the weak link. There is no easy solution to this problem. While I believe that a human connection between the stuff and stories of a house is important, I wonder if we are risking too much to entrust visitor engagement and sustainability to such a variable factor.

Linda Norris said...

Hi Ron--
I chose to focus on the guide presentations in this post for exactly the reasons you mentioned--it's a big issue at every site. Actually, the reports also focused on the interpretation and what the take-away was, but I think this connecting space where the docent/guide lives is critical and you're right--no easy answers!
Thanks for commenting.