Docent Educator Logo

Live! At the Arsenel!: Adding Flare to Guided Tours

Imagine — a visitor stares blankly at a guide, alternately tuning in and out of attention. A group follows a guide around the site from stop to stop, never talking, only listening. These behaviors are not signs of an attentive audience having a positive experience. And yet, we have all had experiences similar to these. In truth, it isn’t far removed from the one-dimensional tours visitors receive at many facilities around the country.

Now, imagine the opposite set of experiences. As visitors arrive they discover a bustle of activity. They see a figure and ask themselves, “Is that a real Civil War uniform he’s wearing?” Right away they realize that this wiU not be an average tour. Periods of listening to the guide present information are broken by interactions with living history demonstrators. The demonstrations allow visitors to encounter, first-hand, much of the subject matter the guide relates. Before visitors realize it, the tour is over, sending many of them back to the park in order to interact with demonstrators at their own speed.

The second scenario is not imaginary. It represents a typical Sunday tour at Arsenal Park, which is part of the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex in Fayetteville, N.C. Here, our LIVE! At the Arsenal program incorporates a series of demonstrations into the tour context.

So, just how do you go about creating interesting interactive tours? Permit me to share the techniques adopted at Arsenal Park. They may help you achieve this goal.

The story of the arsenal began in 1836 when the federal government commissioned the Fayetteville Arsenal for the construction and storage of arms in an attempt to expand national defenses. During the Civil War, North Carolina troops took control of the facility and began manufacturing the Fayetteville Pistol-Carbine and the Fayetteville Rifle. In March of 1865 the arsenal was destroyed by Union troops. Today, Arsenal Park is located adjacent to the Museum of the Cape Fear. The park includes foundations of the arsenal’s machine shops, a steel representation of the northwest tower, and interpretive signage for a self-guided tour.

The Museum of the Cape Fear began LIVE! At the Arsenal in an attempt to expand and add vitality to its programming. Originally, tour groups were led around the site by guides wearing period clothing. Guides emphasized the political events and significant individuals associated with the arsenal’s history. Last year, the Arsenal Park education coordinator experimented by adding two different interpretive stations. At each point, a tour group stopped and interacted with a re-enactor. Each month featured one civilian and one military presentation to appeal to a broad range of visitor interests. This new format seemed to work well. It kept people interested throughout the tour and allowed supplementary information not directly tied to the tour content to be presented. Unfortunately, the demonstrations lacked continuity, simply offering random snippets of nineteenth century life.

So, this year, the museum staff further expanded the program format. On the first Sunday of each month, the living history demonstrations that accompany the guided tours would focus on specific themes. Some of the monthly themes presented include: textiles, weapons, foodways, Civil War infantry, the homefront during the Civil War, military camplife, a mail call for soldiers in camp, and medical practices. Among the specific demonstrations are dying, spinning, carding, bulletmaking, gun cleaning, infantry drilling and firing, open-fire cooking, food preservation, basket making, quilting, and hospital activities.

Among the many benefits of integrating demonstrations into tours are increases in visitor comfort levels, site reputation, and visitation. Demonstrations put the public at ease. By adding an interactive dimension, the tour loses its formality and becomes more of an exchange of information. The visitors also seem more receptive to the information and concepts presented.

Interpretive stations that provide demonstrations allow people to learn in various ways, and through a combination of their senses. The taste of blackberry cobbler cooked in a Dutch oven, the smell of black powder fired from a rifle, and the monotony of rolling cartridges creates a more vivid picture of the past. While it is impossible to completely recreate the past, living history provides greater understanding.

Engaging visitors through demonstrations increases the visitors’ attention spans — fidgeting stops and misbehavior by children decreases. In an era when historical sites and museums compete directly with other forms of leisure time entertainment, strong visitation becomes necessary for our survival. At the Museum of the Cape Fear, our galleries seldom rotate. By integrating different presentations and demonstrations, along with new activities, we have been able to encourage repeat visitation among the local public and hope to attract more tourists.

Also, by successfully marketing the new tour format, you will increase your site’s visibility within the community. This year, museum staff at Arsenal Park will be issuing monthly press releases to announce the featured theme and the character of the tour. Such visibility not only attracts visitors, it attracts and rekindles the spirit of volunteers.

Once you have done your research to ensure credibility and accuracy, you will have to acquire a reliable volunteer corps. For this purpose, it is useful to identify organizations and specialists in your area that can assist. Gain the support of local artisans. Networking is the key. The Museum of the Cape Fear works closely with several reenactment groups around North Carolina.

The next step is to make certain you have the appropriate props. If you are a small site with a limited budget, do not despair. (Reproduction props are costly, and providing a wide array of demonstrations will require a greater number of supplies.) You will find that many reenactors possess their own equipment and are willing to bring their gear with them. Too, when reenactors decide to retire, they often sell their equipment for a reduced price. Neighboring institutions may also be willing to lend props on a short term basis. And, check the want ads in reenactor newsletters such as The Camp Chase Gazette and other living history publications.

Another tip to assist in the establishment of a demonstration program is to emphasize the importance of organization. Demonstrations relate to the tour theme so visitors are aware of the overriding message you wish to present. Also, it is critical to provide visitors with the proper orientation. A brief introductory statement describing the tour’s format will reduce any element of surprise and encourage a positive exchange among visitors and presenters. Thorough decent training is a must and should complete your preparation. Compose and distribute schedules, send out confirmation letters, and make docents aware of your goals for the season. Don’t forget that the docents’ expertise, interest, and abilities are important. In many instances, our volunteers have served in the capacity of teachers for our museum staff In short, such programming should be a cooperative effort.

Volunteers should be allowed to evaluate the program. Listen to what the docents have to say. They are the people representing your site and have the most contact with visitors. Integrating demonstrations and presentations is a process of trial and error. Completing a survey halfway through a season allows time to make adjustments. A more extensive, final survey should be conducted at the end of the season. These responses will help you set next year’s goals and determine any changes that should be incorporated into your demonstrations.

Although the introduction of demonstrations into tour content requires thorough preparation, it is a sure way to add spice to existing programs and to create interesting, interactive tours. By taking into account some of these tips, you should find your site reaping the benefits of return visitation and increased publicity.

Rachel Yahn is the Arsenal Park education coordinator. Prior to spending the last year with the education department at the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex in Fayetteville, N.C., Ms. Yahn worked in the curatorial department at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. In addition, Ms. Yahn completed internships at Historic Brattonsville in Rock Hill, S.C., and the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, MN.

Yahn, Rachel. “Live! At the Arsenel!: Adding Flare to Guided Tours,” The Docent Educator 9.4 (Summer 2000): 6-8.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *