Monthly Archives: November 2012

Self-Guided Tours and Heritage

Is this the Answer?

Everyone employed in heritage knows that government grants have been shrinking for years. Private donations just don’t fill the gap. Everywhere museums and their friends are forced to compete with deeply rooted public concerns such as hospitals, children’s charities and animal welfare. Faced with choosing between such heart-breaking needs and heritage even staunch supporters hesitate. History and culture are inevitably the loosers.

The big day-to-day operating costs for small museums are staffing, utilities/security and insurance/book-keeping, usually in that order. Staffing is by far the biggest cost. Even if volunteers do much of the work at the museum, a paid person is usually required to organize and anchor the operation as well as research and design the tours. So the idea of the “self-guided tour”, which promises to considerably reduce the need for staff, seems worthy of consideration. After all, the White House uses them!

–But, can one really compare tourism operations at the White House to tourism operations elsewhere? First of all, the self-guided tours (those which go inside the White House) must be booked months in advance either through one’s member of congress or senator. If one is not an American, bookings are made through your embassy in Washington. One has to be approved for a tour. They let you know. So groups of unrecorded individuals are not showing up at the gate at any time of the day and marching inside the White House. Second, security officers make sure that visitors show identification which confirms that they are on the booking list. They also make sure that visitors take nothing inside except car keys, wallets and umbrellas. You can carry a cellphone, but if you use it inside, it will be confiscated. –And third, some ask are the White House self-guided tours really self-guided? Evidently there are secret service agents every step of the way to answer the hundreds of questions which tourists inevitably have, but also to keep a strict eye on the visitors.

There is plenty of feed-back on the internet, which is interesting. Many visitors said that the tours are not really “self-guided” as the secret service personnel often accompany parties through the House. These guides garnered lots of really positive comments. Although heritage staff must have agonized over the written materials to guide the tourists many visitors said that the exhibit labels were insufficient and that the really “good stuff” came out while questioning the guides. Some respondents said that all one sees are “a bunch of paintings, photographs and old furniture”. They missed the significance, despite all the efforts to enable visitors to take the tour unescorted.

The basic function and significance of the White House are widely known, so visitors should arrive with at least an elementary understanding of the site. Can this be compared to (say) Laurier House in Ottawa? If the china selected by Martha Washington or Jacqueline Kennedy is not instantly significant to the audience without the intermediary of an interpreter, then what does the desk of Mackenzie-King mean? How is the significance of the “lobby” at Motherwell Homestead (Saskatchewan) to be appreciated? Exhibit designers know that there is a limit to what visitors will read and that tourists have short attention spans when using tape recorders and computer screens. Decline in visitor excitement (and hence, visitor satisfaction) in our world is a dangerous thing.

Heritage professionals also worry about security. Most historic homes are chock full of interesting artifacts, many quite small. It is difficult to believe that one administrator and a batch of security cameras will deter even a determined amateur with sticky fingers. One might be more optimistic about the durability of gardens, vistas, ruins and monuments. However, in 2008 visitors damaged Stonehenge using hammers and chisels and in 2012 dossents at Machu Picchu have been unable to cope with the avalanche of garbage slung down the hillsides by tourists.

In Britain, there appears to have been an alarming increase in thefts and attempted thefts from British museums during 2012. Although some people have suggested that the actual number of thefts has not increased but that they are merely getting more press attention, the Art Loss Register (a very credible source) has stated that 2012 was a record-breaking year for art losses. Many in Britain are blaming the trend on austerity measures which have forced nearly all museums to significantly reduce staff. In February, the Norwich Castle Museum lost some important artifacts associated with Admiral Nelson.  

Mourning Ring worn by Member of Admiral Nelson’s family. Stolen from Norwich Castle Museum.

The Museum had formerly employed interpreters in each room. The interpreters had been replaced with self-guided visits. The Norwich Castle Museum believes that although the interpreters were not primarily employed for security, their presence was an important deterrent to theft.

Parks Canada, a major player in the move away from interpreters and guides, claims that Canadians have voted with their feet when it comes to heritage. Gregory Thomas of Parks Canada is quoted as saying that it is difficult to justify spending tax dollars on museums when Canadians aren’t interested. However, Parks Canada’s own statistics show that visits to some of their sites have increased steadily over the past few years. Besides, many would argue that investment in an understanding of Canada — of our culture, history and the origins of our modern society, is of huge importance. It should not be left to a popularity contest. It is a question of leadership.

Children experience dress-up and tea time at Macpherson House, Napanee, during a Programme implemented by interpreters. (Photo Robert Hammond.)

It should also be pointed out that, due to the loss of interpretation staff, avail-ability of Parks Canada sites for use by schools is about to undergo a huge change.

Heritage professionals view self-guided templates with caution. We know that virtual tours offer exciting possibilities to entertain and educate but they also permit thieves, vandals and crazy folk to “case the joint”. Introducing self-guided tours may indeed help struggling museums to reduce operating costs. Reducing operating costs may allow the museum to continue for another year. But if self-guided tours also result in bored visitors, declining attendance, less integration with educational programmes — in wear and tear and loss from the collection — is the change worth it? Is the bottom line to be our only criterion for success? While it is true that clever use of a mixture of old and new communication technlogies enhance museum visits and can be used with great success for outreach, they may still be most useful when used with living interpreters and guides.

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