|Our group with our tour guide at the Ermatinger Site
Interpretation can make or break a museum visit. Context, signage, and interpretation strategies are essential to creating a heritage environment which is inviting, educational, and ultimately enjoyable. Properly trained interpretive staff can infuse a visit with enthusiasm, context, and information that isn’t always accessible to the average visitor. Untrained or less than great interpretive staff can also make a museum tour seem boring or uninformative.
One of the most surprising guided tour experiences I’ve had recently was at the Ermatinger-Clergue Historic Site in Sault Ste Marie. I had previously visited this site with a co-worker who had previously worked at the Ermatinger site. That visit was great, my co-worker talked a lot about the development of the Historic Site and institutional practices at the Site.
My most recent visit was with a larger group of 12 people and we had a formal tour provided by the Site’s curator (who was in period costume for the occasion). Our guide focused mainly on the history of the area, fur trade politics, and First Nation-Settler relations. The majority of the group I was visiting with was from out of town and learned a lot about local history from our guide. I was impressed by how well she geared her discussion and annotates to the interests and learning levels of our group. The guided tour allowed me to learn more about the site than I had on previous visits and allowed our large group to partake in a shared experience that we could then discuss in a educational context later on.
Deciding to take a guided tour at an institution can be a dice roll between getting a tour leader/interpretive staff member that is knowledgeable or one who seems to dread their job. Which leads to the question, is participating in guided tours worth the effort? It depends on what type of museum visitor you are and what type of institution you are visiting. Some people like to move at their own pace and read every artifact label in sight, making a guided tour too fast paced and broad sweeping for their preferences.
Many guided tours provide collection and institutional overviews. This can be great if you have limited time, want to learn more about contextual factors that aren’t mentioned in current exhibits, or as a new way of seeing an institution you have visited many times. Guided tours are also great if you are visiting a museum in a large group, as it allows for a shared learning experience that is sometimes missing from large group visits to museums.
One of the easiest things to do is ask museum staff about the tour prior to taking it. Ask about tour length, depth, exhibits/spaces covered — does the tour let you into spaces that you can’t see as a solo visitor, and about the staff leading the tour. Alternatively, a lot more institutions are now posting detailed tour information on their website, making it possible to look into tour options before you arrive at an institution. I find knowing what type of tour I’m entering into saves me a lot frustration and helps manages my expectations.
What was your best or worst guided tour experience?