To Guide or Not to Guide?

To guide or not to guide, is that the question? Museums pushing to innovate or move their collection spaces into the future commonly struggle with the question of whether to have or not to have guided tours. Each scenario has its pros and cons. A guided tour offers greater interaction between the institution and the visitor, including the opportunity for immediate answers to questions and access to more collection areas. Self-guided tours allow a visitor to move at their own pace and focus on objects that specifically interest them.

The 2016 Southern Field Study involved a range of tour styles from general admission tours to behind the scenes curatorial tours. The majority of the tours we participated in were guided, which, perhaps, lead to a bias towards guided tours, but also enabled us to see the myriad of forms a tour can have. Museums do not need to choose between the false dichotomy of guided and self-guided tours, there are a multitude of opportunities in between.


Exploring collections storage at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian

At the Museum of the Cherokee Indian we had the pleasure of walking through the museum and collection storage with Sonny Ledford and Michael Rowe, Jr., warriors of the Cherokee Nation. Sonny and Mike offered us the opportunity to discover and learn about Cherokee culture and history firsthand; for example we extensively discussed historical and contemporary Cherokee gender dynamics.

At Historic Columbia in Columbia, SC, education director James Quint lead us through the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson, a space designed to be self-toured but which is usually guided for school groups. James offered us a hybrid tour. Upon first entering a space he provided a brief explanation of the highlights of the room and then allowed us to explore the room individually. We moved through the home as a group focused on understanding the reconstruction era in Columbia, but we were also given a measure of independence to follow up on themes that interested us individually such as politics, race, religion, or Wilson himself.

James Quint leading us into another Historic Columbia property, the Modjeska Simkins House

Our tour of Reynolda, the home of R. J. and Katharine Reynolds, was similarly executed. Julia Hood gave an overview of the home and the family and then escorted us into the house, which we explored at our leisure. The house is designed to be self-guided but Julia waited in the main rooms and corridors of the home to answer any questions not immediately addressed by museum panels. The hybrid tour, in many ways, offers the best of both worlds but does not necessarily offer visitors a cohesive experience as visitors may bounce between themes indiscriminately.

Reynolda, the home of R. J. and Katharine Reynolds.

The International Civil Rights Museum offered two experiences with one ticket. The Museum contained numerous interactive elements but was designed to be viewed first as part of a guided tour. The visitor could then return to any section of the exhibit to read the panels or study the objects in more depth. Touring the museum with a guide first was essential to understanding the deep and complex history of the civil rights movement in America and the role of The Greensboro Four in sparking the sit-in movement.


The Greensboro Four, depicted at the International Civil Rights Museum, Greensboro, NC.

The format of any tour is largely dictated by the security needs of the collection; however, the style of the tour is adaptable to visitor and institutional needs. Museums do not have to choose between a guided and a self-guided tour: they can explore the multitude of opportunities in between that enhance the educational goals of the institution. Therefore the question is not to guide or not to guide but rather what kind of visitor experience you want your audience to have.

By Alexandra Ward, WPAMC Class of 2017

All photos by WPAMC Fellows

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