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Get Into It!: Energizing Your Tours!

Would tour guides like it if a group of just-toured visitors slipped onto their knees and exclaimed, with tears pouring from their eyes, that the tour was the best, most life-altering experience they had ever had? Of course! While that may be pushing the envelope, tour guides do want our time and our dedication, as well as our behind-the-scenes nervousness, to be worthwhile.

Giving educational tours, especially in the historic site arena, can be an exhausting challenge. Let’s face it: museum visitors have different expectations. Some expect to be bored out of their minds, and arrive with the idea that they will get invisible brownie points somewhere (maybe with a spouse?) for taking the tour. Still others hold the notion that they are going to be entertained, and gawk at the tour guide as though the poor creature was a circus attraction.

This article explores a few ways tour guides — whether docent volunteers or paid staff— can add a little pizzazz to their tours. While the examples are drawn from a historic site perspective, those in other fields should find ideas that will add a little more gusto to their tours as well.

Our historic site is located thirteen miles outside of Portland, Oregon. When visitors make the drive to our facility, they expect to be entertained, or at the very least, they want their gas money to be well spent.

When I first became site coordinator, I realized that to make our facility a special destination, we were going to have to get fancy. Gone were recited tours and handheld notecards that ensured the tour guides would speak in monotone. The Bybee House, a Greek Revival home dating to the 1850’s, needed to take guided tours to another level, engaging visitors in a way that would leave a lasting, and positive, impression. Instead of telling the audience about the site (known as historic interpretation), we invited them to help us make and explore history using the site as a tool. The result was an increase in return visitorship, and a rise in attendance due to positive word-of-mouth publicity. The key to this quantitative success? Our tours were energized!

Here are some ideas to shake things up and keep audiences coming back for more.

  1. Ask questions of the visitors to add flavor and experience to the tour.

Ask “has anyone ever seen this item before?” or “Can any of you guess what this object was used for?” Many times, visitors will be more than happy to share their wisdom and knowledge. There is nothing better than pointing out a butter churn and having a guest step forward with stories of how in her childhood it took her almost an hour, using a similar sized churn, to make butter.

  1. If someone knows more than you, go with it.

Often historic sites attract visitors having more knowledge about certain items than the tour guides possess. Instead of taking this as a challenge or affront, step back and allow the visitor some limelight. First, assess if the person really knows what he or she is talking about. Usually, one question as to that person’s profession or collecting hobby will suffice. Then, if the visitor seems to have a good grasp on the subject, allow them to explore the topic.

If an antiques expert tours with your group, and has a vast knowledge of old sewing machines, let that person describe the 1854 model on display. Keep the visitor-expert’s comments within a reasonable time frame, and be sure to thank them for sharing. The end result is that you will generate good feelings with the visitor, prove that you are open and willing to expand your own information base, and will establish a friendly, conversational atmosphere with the crowd as a whole.

  1. Consider how you can join more mundane items with more exciting ones.

Got boring items to tour? Most museums have some items that are so common they are seemingly invisible to the average visitor. Join the dull items with more exciting ones to give the tour, and artifact, a fresh perspective.

For example, in the Bybee House parlor sits a horsehair couch. Visitors are familiar with couches, so it elicits no more than a casual response. However, this couch has a companion item. Hanging on the wall to the immediate left is a courting mirror — a mirror whose center is bulged out like half a grapefruit.

Many years ago, a young lady would have a gentleman friend over and they would sit oh-so-close to each other on the couch. Unbeknownst to her and her companion, the girl’s father was standing in the hallway, peering into the courting mirror. Why? He was able to see when the young man’s lips inched towards his daughter’s fair cheek. The courting mirror was triumphant, and puppy love was thwarted. Such a story places the couch in a whole new light!

  1. Seek out stories and descriptions that visitors can relate and respond to.

Most everyone sleeps in a bed, right? When touring bedrooms of a historic house, visitors have the tendency to casually pass over items they easily recognize, such as beds. However, the good tour guide will take time to challenge the audience. In the Bybee House, a simple wooden bed assumes the role of teacher to show social customs and emphasize everyday life during the Victorian period. As modern visitors pass the bed with hardly a glance, they are asked, “What would you do if you had to fit five people into this single bed?” This question usually provokes a chorus of nervous giggles from the audience.

“Everyone sleeps together!” one soul might step forward to offer. The tour guide will nod, but challenge the group again. “But, how? There isn’t room!”

Wheels churn as minds search for an answer and after a few moments, the guide thrills visitors with an explanation. “In such a small bed, people could not sleep head-to-toe as we do today. People a hundred years ago would sleep lengthwise in the bed, so that their bodies were ; going side-to-side instead of head- to-toe.”

The on-lookers will imagine, if only for a second, that they are lying in the small bed. Suddenly, questions spring from the audience. I “Why?” “How?” and so on, until finally a simple bed has become more than just, well, a bed. It is the center of attention and speculation, and could very well be among the things the audience will remember most when the tour is over.

  1. Take classes in story telling and folklore.

A little story telling ability is always a winner! That is not to say that we, as museum professionals, should make a habit of telling fictional stories. Rather, the ability to mix information (no matter how common or drab it might be) with some seasoning in the form of anecdotes and peculiar tales, and toss this with a sprig of personal flare, produces a tasty treat that can stimulate and engage the audience.

  1. Dress the part.

Nothing gives visitors more of a thrill than being greeted by someone who looks like they know what they are doing. A basic professional clean and neat appearance is a must. However, adding some costuming appropriate to the tour, the location, the time period, and/or the subject matter can be a great way to stimulate conversation.

When giving guided tours, I will wear a pioneer-period outfit representing the 1840’s and 1850’s when Oregon Trail settlers (including the Bybees) settled in the Pacific Northwest. The vision of a woman dressed in a dark wool skirt with a white cotton top and a gray bonnet is too much for visitors. They are entranced, and will ask “why do you wear that” and “how does it feel?” Many want to know if I am hot, or it was hard getting dressed that morning.

Add to this the method of using fashion history to bring the family and house to life. I tell visitors to think of Julia Bybee, wearing an outfit like mine, running back and forth between kitchen and dining room while preparing a meal. Think of her skirts swishing against tables as she plops down a bowl of mashed potatoes. Think of the way the heat being generated by the open fireplace must have made the fabric cling to her moist skin. The visitors imagine the scene, if only for a moment. This is truly “living” history at its best —when the living make history something that they can produce and hold in their own minds.

  1. Keep your information up-to-date through research.

In an age where things get old quickly, keep a tour vital and accurate. It is essential for the tour’s success. On-going research of the people, places, social and material culture is crucial to keeping tours fresh and current.

So, we tour guides don’t have to push visitors off into a walking slumber. You have the recipe for “intellectual-Vivarin.” Use some of the hints above, and wake your audience up!

Jennifer Blacke, M.A. , is site coordinator of the Bybee Howell Historic Site in Portland, Oregon, for the Oregon Historical Society. While she works in public history, Ms. Blacke is also a family historian with a passion for engaging people with the past by combining genealogical research with living history demonstrations. 

Blacke, Jennifer. “Get Into It! Energizing Your Tours,” The Docent Educator 12.1 (Autumn 2002): 16-17.

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