Thoughts on tours
Historic house guided tours have received a reputation over the last couple decades with many museum visitors, and also with museum professionals, as being boring. There is no other way to put it. Let me give you an example of a young curator’s experience.
Michelle loves historic homes – so much in fact that even when she is not curating her own site, she visits them on vacation. A couple summers ago Michelle headed on a trip to a southern city where she was looking forward to touring historic houses. That is, until she went on her first tour. The guide droned on and on and would not release the visitors even though the time to end the tour had long lapsed. It was excruciating! Even though Michelle had planned to visit other sites in the area, she could not bring herself to take a chance on getting another tedious tour.
Think about your own experiences. Are you one of those thousands of visitors to historic houses that have had the misfortune to take a bad tour? When I ask that question at workshops and training session I conduct with museum staff, I always get a knowing laugh from the audience, followed by everyone raising their hand indicating they know just what I mean.
While some consider bad tours to be merely a nuisance, they're really much more than that. Tours that are long, boring and not engaging to either adults or children are actually a real drag on the whole museum profession. Research conducted by Reach Advisors indicates that tours are one of the least favorite ways for people to experience interpretation – only 45% of visitors surveyed indicated that they liked that form of interpretation. While some might say that's not bad, it’s almost one-half of visitors. It really is an anchor for the profession that is weighing down reputation, attendance, and therefore revenue. Very, very bad.
Why is it so terrible? In Michelle’s case above, her dreadful tour had a distressing effect on nearby sites because she did not visit them … or bring the sites money from her admission and store purchases. That unpleasant tour experience is why so many visitors who like and enjoy history do not like historic house tours. If visitors have an unsatisfying, dull tour, they will often avoid going on another tour. It’s not worth the risk of wasting time, just as Michelle felt. And not only do they have an unpleasant experience, they are probably not going to say good things about the house they visited. As a matter fact, they are probably going to have some pretty negative comments about the tour that they will pass along to others.
While that all sounds bleak and depressing, it doesn't have to be that way. Just as boring tours can give visitors a lasting negative impression, so too can engaging, relevant tours provide visitors with great experiences and lasting positive impressions. I am sure all of you have had the experience of going on a really superb tour. When that happens you talk about it with other people.
Engaging tours can have an impact. Let me give you two examples. A couple years ago I was touring plantations in Charleston, South Carolina and partaking of all the African American experience tours that I could. I went on one tour at the Magnolia Plantation that was perhaps the best tour I have ever had, and when I recounted my trip to others I always mentioned that site and that tour. I also urged anyone traveling in that area to go on the same tour.
Another good example is the success of the Tenement Museum, built in large part on the excellence of their tours – at least that is how I heard about the Museum years ago while working at Baltimore City Life Museums. Visitors would come on our tour, have a great experience, and then tell me that I should visit the Tenement museum if I wanted to see another good tour. When I visited there a couple years ago, I could see what all those visitors meant. It really was excellent.
That’s the upside of good tours. Visitors have a good experience and want to share it with others. As you probably did when you had a good tour, they enjoy telling people about it and recommending it. As you can see, if good tours are a regular occurrence at your site, then you have a lot of goodwill ambassadors out there promoting your site.
Fortunately, there are strategies for developing and techniques for delivering engaging, meaningful tours – and all of it is supported by recent research. Over the next few months I will present strategies and techniques to create engaging tours that leads visitors to connect with your site and mission, elicits their good will and perhaps support, and increase the chances that they will praise your site to relatives, friends and acquaintances.
Following the posts on tours, I’ll begin presenting strategies and techniques, and the research behind them, for other live interpretation – museum theatre, living history, free-range, or roving, interpretation and others.