Imagine, if you will, that it is a beautiful day. It is your first day off of work for a while and you take your family for some well deserved leisure time at a local museum or castle or stately home. You pay, let’s be honest, quite a bit of money for your tickets. The site itself is grandiose and beautiful. You decide to go on one of the offered guided tours, hoping to have a good time on your day off. A dowdy, dusty tour guide approaches and proceeds to drag you around the site for the next three hours, droning on in a crackling monotone about people you’ve never heard of and what they did during events that you’d only know about if you had a couple of history degrees between you. Your children start to get fractious, your spouse is trying not to yawn, and you can’t help thinking that the meeting at work with Sandra from Accounting yesterday was more interesting than this. You go home knowing nothing new, bored, and wishing you had just mooched around by yourselves in amiable quiet.
This seems to altogether be an occurrence that is far to regular in British visitor attractions. History is seen as a dour subject favoured by caricature-like academics who guard their knowledge like Smeagol guarding The Ring. Apparently the number of teenagers choosing history as a GCSE or A-Level are falling steadily. History is as dull as ditchwater.
Except we all know that it isn’t. History is full of the weird and wonderful facts and anecdotes, and characters who would make Lady Gaga et al look as charismatic as a sprouting potato.
In my humble opinion, tour guides should be trying to make our heritage as thrilling and absorbing as we ourselves know it to be. And not just among ourselves, but for everyone who makes the effort to visit our sites and museums.
Having worked in two, I personally like visiting stately homes. However, a lot of these seem to have exactly the same job description for their all of their guides. Be a middle-aged woman with a cut-glass accent. Wear a twin set and pearls. Sneer at anyone who makes less money than your husband. Act like you actually are the Lady of the Manor. Blather on about the amount of Van Dyke paintings that are in the house. Mention nothing actually interesting to anyone who isn’t studying for a history of art degree.
These women seem to act as if taking such a menial job as tourguiding is charity work conducted for our benefit, because we are ignorant peasants who wouldn’t appreciate a good woodcarving if it slapped us in the face. That they are so posh and stinking rich that tour guiding helps fill the hours between galas and shooting parties. This is particularly true if the stately home in question is still privately owned. Instead of fascinating, the guide appears aloof and inaccessible. Which in turn reflects upon the image we, as visitors, form of the house.
I prefer to take a different view. I know from experience that out of a tour group of, say, 20 people, only 5 will have any prior knowledge of the history of the site. At least 10 have been dragged to the site on the promise of an ice cream afterwards. The other 5 will have visited because it was the closest visitor attraction to them and they are taking a gamble that they’ll be interested. A bad tour guide will focus on the first 5 people for the duration of the tour, and 75% of their tour group goes home dissatisfied.
Shouldn’t we, as tour guides, concentrate on getting that 75% interested and excited as well as enhancing the knowledge of the minority? Those 15 people should not be ignored, or in some cases, sneered at, because they don’t know much about the site or subject that the guide is talking about.
I chose a career as a guide because sharing my own knowledge and enthusiasm is just as much fun as gaining that same knowledge. I have never been able to understand why so many people apply for, and receive jobs, where the thought of sharing knowledge is an abhorrent concept for them.
That’s not to say that I consider myself the only interesting tour guide in the world. There are hundreds of us sprinkled generously about. But I would like to see more of us taking the approach that history is more than a long list of meticulously memorised dates. It is the story of our collected past as a community, nation and indeed species. History is something to be shared and discussed. That can be kickstarted by a fascinating tour that ignites a desire to know more.That should be the role of a tour guide.