The Role Of A Tour Guide

        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.


Filed under The Art of Tour Guiding

4 responses to “The Role Of A Tour Guide

  1. chris

    Apparently potatoes chit (pronounced sh) not sprout but like your analogy.

  2. I think you write very well about the real work of tourguide. I have been doing it as a driver and guide since 1996. Slowly this past year or so the caliber of people has been declining I. The San Francisco Bay Area. So
    Many now come from china and India and Latin America so that all references seem to make nonsense to them. This is a big challenge and I wonder if you are encountering it yourself. Every tourist spot in Europe and North America seems to be going through this transition. Huge amounts of very small children seem to come along with these new tourists. California wineries started new rules that no one under sixteen was allowed on the winery grounds. It was obviously hopeless to enforce that the parents would control small and screaming offspring and charges of racism against them as nonwjites could enter the fray

    Simultaneous and uninvited translation of your info to Spanish was another growing problem. Although many options for Spanish tours were for the asking, many Latinos would simply never ask and just start talking at the same time as I would. Then they would complain that they don’t know English ad it’s my fault that I as a North American haven’t learned Spanish. Never mind that I know German and some French and Russian. This seemed to have some connection with their class or income level, but mostly the arrogance was at the high income levels.

    I don’t agree that the twin set ladies of your English castles are a bore or too condescending. They amused us greatly because they seemed to embody the old style wealth and arrogance of aristocrats. I dare say also that some are not well off and need the money. Maybe the family had to pay such high taxes to the labour government that the women and men needs to open the house and work for a living. Like the women in charity shops some have money and some don’t. One never knows. But to me it was quaint to hear their crisp and exact BBC English. Something from Mastrrpiece Theater with Alistair Cooke!

  3. I agree that sharing knowledge is the best part of being a tour guide (which I am, in Philadelphia). I admit that it’s difficult to win over those who don’t appear interested or have obviously come along against their will (7th graders come to mind here). It’s personally one of the hardest parts of the job, to feel that the information I’m conveying is boring. Thanks for giving your perspective on our field!

  4. Debbie H

    This was really helpful. I think that I have a hard time connecting with people who don’t always seem interested. I think that your point of “making it fun for everyone who’s visiting” really hit home for me. The role of a tour guide is important because sometimes we are the first impression on a guest. Thank you for your thoughts!

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