Skeleton Key Historical Consulting

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Tours Revisited

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We’ve all been on that tour. Usually (but not always) it’s at a historic house museum, the guide is either very old or very young. There was obviously a “script” that was memorized. The script is full of inaccuracies and over-simplification. Sometimes the guide talks down to visitors – “And do you know what THIS is?” holding up a candle holder; or “Back then there was no electricity!” The tour drags on forever, questions are discouraged, and the guide may even be rude.

We know these tours are not good for the reputations of individual museums and museums in general. But what is to be done?

Here are some obstacles to good tours:

  • Lack of training. Most small and even mid-sized museums do not have adequate staff to fully train mostly volunteer docents. Often, volunteer coordination is just one of the many duties assigned to overworked staff, and one that often results in nothing more than quick recruitment (if that), and scheduling. 
  • Focus on objects, not stories. While objects are obviously the reason for museums, focusing too much on objects without providing enough context or background can be confusing or alienating to the average visitor. Tours that focus on “decorative arts” are most often judged “boring” by visitors. The average person finds stories about people and events far more interesting than facts about objects.
  • Resistance to change. Many museums are crippled by long-time volunteers or even staff (and board members) who are unwilling to even contemplate changing anything because the way things are is “the way its always been done” or “just fine the way it is.” But the evidence is in: many museums are seeing a decline in funding and visitorship. Well-reasoned change should always be on the table.
  • Lack of in-depth research. Many collections are filled with objects whose description entries read along the lines of, “18th century chippendale chair, original owner unknown, donated in 1980 by Mr. Smith” or “Child’s christening gown, owned by Mrs. Elizabeth Goodwin, 1840s.” Rarely is any context given in the database, meaning little context is given in exhibits or on tours. Often, the lack of research is due to lack of time, but can also be due to lack of expertise.

What are the hallmarks of a good tour?

  • Visitor engagement. When visitors interact with guides in a relaxed and informal way, they feel comfortable asking questions and they pay attention. Tours that engage children without talking down to them also engage adults. The opposite is not true. Visitor engagement also means leaning more toward discussion rather than lectures.
  • Focus. Tours with an educational goal or theme can not only avoid digressions, they can also go more in-depth into certain historical topics, provide better context, and better engage visitors. In addition, tours that change seasonally or annually can also bring repeat visitation.
  • Brevity, with caveats. Tours that are concise get their point across without wasting a visitor’s time. That being said, the flexibility to talk to very engaged visitors for more than an hour are vastly preferred to tours that must be cut short or rushed to accommodate the next group.
  • Tailored. The best tour guides can tailor their tour to the audience they serve. A tour for PhD candidates is going to be very different from one for 5th graders, which will be very different from one of young families with toddlers. Knowing what to say when and to whom can make all the difference. Nothing turns off a group more than adults getting a tour designed for 3rd graders, or 3rd graders getting a tour designed for adults.
  • Customer service. Museums are, at their heart, customer service institutions. We serve the public and although there is a tendency to think we know everything and visitors know nothing, that doesn’t mean that basic customer service doesn’t apply. Visitors should always be greeted with a smile, treated kindly and politely, and questions should be taken seriously, regardless of what they are.

How to achieve all this? You can do one of two things – hire the perfect staff member with boundless energy and lots of experience, or you could talk to the experienced, energetic, and innovative Skeleton Key Consultants.

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Author: sewassbe

Late 20s museum professional in New York state. Interested in rural, agricultural, women's, Progressive, culinary, and early 20th century history. Enjoys hiking, canoeing, playing music, thrift and antique shopping, cooking, collecting vintage cookbooks, and throwing dinner parties.

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