Back to Basics, Or: A few Do’s, and mostly Don’t’s, of Guiding Tours

Since my return to Germany, I have been on many guided tours that have truly made me want to weep with frustration. I’ve had guides who held lengthy monologues; guides who asked not a single question to get to know their audience; guides who talked about things that were nowhere in sight.

 

I could continue this list of examples that fly in the face of every professional principle of interpretation. Those familiar with Germany’s museum sector will not be surprised. interpretation as an academic discipline and professional practice is mostly unknown. Museumspädagogik, as the German discipline that comes closest (but which is not Interpretation), is still dismissed as secondary by many museum directors and curators. As the Bundesverband Museumspädagogik e.V., the federal association for Museumspädagogik, notes, there are only limited opportunities to study Museumspädagogik at an academic level. In fact, it lists only one academic course taught in Germany, Austria and (the German-speaking part of) Switzerland. In general, those practicing Museumspädagogik are subject specialists such as (art) historians, with no or only limited knowledge of Museumspädagogik acquired through short courses.

 

The outcome for visitors is as predictable as it is regrettable – not that the impact of these visitor programmes is regularly evaluated, if at all [1]. Again, this shows just how little value is often attached to them. It may be an indication, however, that participation levels at German museums (excluding tourist destinations) are shockingly low. So perhaps it might be a good idea to start offering guided tours that follow some basic do’s and don’ts.

 

Here’s my list:

 

Consider your role

I advocate for tour guides to think of themselves as hosts and facilitators. How would you behave if you had invited strangers over to your house? What would you do to ensure they have a great time with whatever it is you’ve planned for their stay with you? Take that as your guidance for being a tour guide. It should at the very least prevent you from being a bore who only talks about themselves, their knowledge and their interests.

 

Give a duration…

There are a myriad of reasons why visitors may need to know how long a guided tour takes: They may have plans later on and require the information for their decision making. Some in their group may not wish to join the tour and instead meet up again later. I could go on. The point is that to withhold this information is inconsiderate. It is power play and poor hosting. It also puts up totally avoidable barriers.

 

…and stick to it (1)!

When you do tell visitors how long a tour will be (and remember that often, like I do, they ask!), then do stick to the time. Otherwise, visitors are forced to make the decision to either stay and jeopardize their other plans, or to feel rude and leave while the tour is still going on. It creates an uncomfortable situation which begins as soon as visitors realize that the original end time nears, but the tour is nowhere near conclusion. This is just the opposite of an environment that supports new experiences and learning. Which, one should imagine, are the whole point of a guided tour.

 

Be clear about your topic…

You need to let people know what your guided tour is about. I’m not talking about a theme here [2]. I mean the broad topic: is it the art works in an exhibition? The personal history of the artists? The curatorial decisions? Your topic is what lets people decide on whether or not to join your tour. Otherwise, you’re asking them to sign up for the unknown, which only the most die-hard will do (and thus you’ve put up another unnecessary barrier for everyone else). Or, which is just as undesirable, they’ll arrive with their own assumptions, which may have nothing to do with your intended topic.

 

…and stick to it (2)!

Once you’ve let people know your topic: Do.Not.Talk.About.Everything.Else.You.Know. It is false advertising. Think of it like a contract. People have given you their time because they’re expecting to get something specific in return. They’re not there to provide you with the (captive) audience to impress with your vast knowledge. Remember: you want to be a good host, not a bore (see above).

 

Get to the point

This is Communication 101 stuff, but it clearly needs stating again: if you know what you’re trying to say, then say it. Don’t meander. Don’t get side-tracked. Don’t get too fond of hearing your own voice. Here’s a clue: if you stay more than five to ten minutes in one spot, then you’re not getting to the point of what can and should be said at that spot. And if you’re not sure about what your point is, then take some time beforehand to gain clarity.

 

Focus on what is there

Talk about what people can see. Do not have them stand in front of something and then talk at length about something else. It frustrates people, and loses their interest. If there is a connection to what they can see, point it out to them.

 

And finally: Asking questions does not make a dialogue

Do not confuse asking questions such as, ‘What can you see in this painting?’ and ‘Do you know what this is?’ with facilitating a dialogue. These questions are more reminiscent of school teachers than tour guides. They are, in essence, about people’s knowledge relating to what you are showing them. A dialogue is something different. Of course you can and should ask questions of your audience to initiate a conversation. But these questions should be about them. Ask them why they’ve come. What are they interested in? Is there anything in their personal experience that resonates with what is on site? It’s also good practice to offer something of yourself as well: what is your background? What interests you? Let the ensuing conversation guide the tour: that is dialogical; that is participation.

 

 

Notes

[1] In Germany, visitor research, which includes evaluation of programmes, is still considered by many to be superfluous. And thus, many museum directors, who really should be interested in the outcomes of their programmes and thus the impact of their work, don’t actually know what they achieve, if anything at all. The German Museum Association has therefore launched a laudable effort to persuade more museums to engage in visitor research.

[2] see Ham, S. 1992. Environmental Interpretation. A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. Golden: North American Press

 

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