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Touring the Public – – “Come One, Come All”

Effective teaching is a challenge regardless of the circumstances. Working with walk-in visitors, however, may be among the more formidable of educational responsibilities. While certain assumptions can be made about a fourth grade class coming to your institution in conjunction with its social studies curriculum, such presumptions cannot be applied to walk-in visitors.

Walk-in visitors rarely share similar backgrounds and characteristics. Often, they do not have the same reasons for coming to your institution, nor do they share the same hopes and expectations for the experience. Playing to the diversity of this audience requires knowledge, flexibility, competence, self-confidence, and accommodation. And while these ingredients are important in all teaching situations, rarely are they needed in such abundance as when working with the variety of people who might comprise a walk-in tour group.

Getting to Know You

Arrive at your greeting station early, as the group assembles, and use the time before your tour begins to engage in an informal conversation with visitors. “Where are you from?” “Have you been here before?” “What have you heard about our institution that brought you here today?” These questions, and others like them, are useful for gathering information about the diverse people who will be sharing a common guided experience.

Take the impressions and information you gather from this casual conversation and weave them into your tour introduction. Your introduction should explain your institution’s mission and let visitors know how their expectations relate to the collection and touring experience.

“Welcome to our Historical Society’s Living Coffee Farm, an historic site that has preserved a way of life that flourished in the early 20* century and a form of agriculture that continues to have a direct bearing on the character and development of our area. Though you will not be hearing about, or sampling, different types of coffee, you will be learning about the Japanese immigrants who pioneered these coffee farms, their experience as immigrants to this new and strange world, and you will see how their coffee crop was harvested and prepared for market.

“Have any of you spoken with family members who immigrated to the United States from another country? Where did they come from, and what did they remember most about their experience?”

Adopting a conversational and interactive tone with your visitors not only gives them the tour’s overview, it will acquaint them with the give-and-take of an active learning tour — where questions are asked and ideas and answers are discussed among the participants.

Knowing How to Deal with Those You are Dealing With

Groups, and individuals within groups, differ from one another. While you continue to initiate your tour, take notice of those who seem outgoing as well as those who seem reticent. Survey the range of individual learning styles before you. Understanding the differences in individual learning styles will assist you when gauging your audience’s needs. It will help you pose appropriate questions, take advantage of various responses, and provide you with routes toward enfranchising others who learn or respond to things differently. Remember, as the teacher, it is your responsibility to enfranchise all members of your group and to accommodate the various ways they acquire, process, and respond to new information.

What about accessibility; is it a concern? Have you received training in methods for teaching and touring people having visual or auditory challenges? If not, request such training from those who supervise public programs at your institution! Do you know how to make your tour accessible for all age groups? How should you approach touring a group that consists of grandparents, single adults, and youngsters? (Try talking with the adults, but asking your questions to the youngsters.) If you have not received training on age-grading your tours and methods for enfranchising all types of audiences, you have a right to expect it from the institution you serve.

It is difficult to be an effective teacher if you do not receive extensive training. Though subject matter content should be considered an essential part of being a good teacher, it cannot be considered the only part. Equally important are those skills and attributes that make for effective teaching, such things as educational techniques, methods of controlling communication, ways of age-grading information, the uses of inquiry and questioning strategies, issues of accessibility, and methods for the development and implementation of lesson plans.

Establishing Expectations

Keep in mind that walk-in tours are usually provided as a convenience to visitors. Unless your institution requires all visitors to move through the site with guides, visitors should be informed early on of the itinerary for your tour. And, if a visitor’s expectations are not going to be met during a tour, let him know so that he can make a choice about how to proceed.

Perhaps, during your informal conversations with visitors, you discover that most of your group arrived expecting to see an overview of the permanent collection, but one couple hoped to see a special exhibition. Assuming there is not enough time to accomplish both, you should let the couple know that you will not be taking them into the special exhibition area.

“Our tour today will survey many of the highlights of our permanent art collection, which ranges from early Egyptian pieces to contemporary works by regional artists. If you only have time to visit our special exhibition of Dutch j landscapes, however, you may wish to head directly for the second floor, where that exhibition is located.”

Coming and Going

Unlike students taking a guided tour with their class, walk-in visitors are under no obligation to remain with a tour from its beginning until its ending. Some visitors will join while the tour is in progress; other visitors will leave before the tour has ended. Both coming and going should not fluster the docent. This phenomenon should be expected when touring walk-in visitors.

Nevertheless, it takes great confidence to continue teaching as visitors drift away from your tour. Don’t take their going personally. Everything from an impending doctor’s appointment to an expiring parking meter can be the reason for breaking away from a tour. Likewise, don’t be overly flattered by those who might link up with your tour while it is in progress. Most museum visitors are looking for routes toward greater understanding, and your talk might just be what they want at that moment. AH docents, regardless of their tour’s “body count,” should receive extensive evaluating to learn how they might improve and gain even greater effectiveness.

Knowing Your Limits

Should you tour the interior of a Victorian home, but not the formal garden behind the house, let visitors know. “During our 45-minute tour, we will be covering the interior of this 1880’s home. From several rooms on the second floor, you will get a wonderful view of the garden in back; however we will not be able to tour it together. Should you wish to focus on the garden, there is tour specifically of the garden that begins at 2:00 p.m.”

Knowing your limits does not mean being inflexible. Quite naturally, you should be adaptive while touring, responding to visitors’ interests, questions, and concerns. However, you cannot be all things to all people, and you must know what areas of the collection are within, and what areas are beyond, your purview.

Going with the Flow

The temptation when touring walk-ins is to provide a set experience, and to expect visitors to adapt to the format, tone, and tenor of the tour that is being offered. That form of “recipe” teaching can work, but it rarely excels.

In many ways, a parallel can be drawn between teaching and cooking. While recipes are important guides, the test of a cook is how she handles the situation when all the ingredients are not present, or when there is a need to change or an opportunity to improve. The same is true of teaching. The measure of an effective educator is how she handles situations when she departs from the standard recipe.

It is essential that a good cook know how to make substitutions. The same is true of an effective docent. A good cook tailors the meal to the tastes and needs of her guests. The same is true of an effective docent. And, a good cook understands which elements in the mix add to or subtract from the experience. Again, the same is true of the effective docent.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Touring the Public–‘Come One, Come All,'” The Docent Educator 10.3 (Spring 2001): 2-4.

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