Further Reflections on Monticello: Guided vs Unguided tours

In Wednesday’s (1/13) class Chris asked if I took away anything from my recent visit to Monticello that would be useful to my studies in Public History and as usual the answer took more thought than I could give it on the fly.  The visit started me thinking about guided tours.  At Monticello, all tours of the interior are guided, and at the beginning of the tour visitors are told that if they need to leave the tour they should tell the tour guide and someone would walk them out and help them rejoin a later tour group if necessary.  That was a cheerful way of saying visitors are not allowed to be alone in any area of the house, a.k.a “we don’t want you to damage or steal our stuff.”  I understand the security precautions… Monticello is globally known, gets a large number of visitors, and has a large collection of valuable and delicate artifacts on display, any of which would be a prize to would be thieves.  Unfortunately, these measures put me at the mercy of the tour guide, and my visit was at her pace… and I wanted to linger and observe and imagine.  I left feeling controlled and unsatisfied.  (Of course this could also be a diabolical marketing plot to leave the visitor wanting more.)  When Chris asked about my experience, the first thing that came to mind was how interesting the outside features were… the kitchen, brewery, gardens, slave quarters, even the “privvy”.  These were the areas where my family and I were able to spend the most time, and to stop and think/talk about.

In comparison, I’ve also recently visited other house museums that had less security measures and I think made for a better visit.  At Reynolda House, visitors are free to wander at their own pace.  The occasional lone docent would drift by so I knew someone was keeping watch, but I was otherwise free to remain in each room as long as I wished and to have discussions with my daughter who was with me.  Reynolda House does not have the security needs that Monticello does since most of the objects displayed are either furniture or mounted art.  At Biltmore House I also had the freedom of a self-guided tour, but the tour path was predetermined, and much of the rooms were roped off.  Even so, I still had the opportunity to remain in each area as long as I wanted, even if I wasn’t able to get close enough to some objects to observe detail.  In both of these examples the visitor trades information they would normally get in the guided tour for the freedom of the unguided tour.  An audio tour might be the best of both worlds, but I’ve never opted for that since I’m always visiting with family and the audio component gets in the way of family interaction.

All of you… what house museums have any of you visited?  Do you remember what tour format was given, and any impressions you have on tour effectiveness.

Chris… are you aware of any articles or research that discusses guided, unguided, and audio tours in respect to visitor satisfaction and/or retention of information?

5 thoughts on “Further Reflections on Monticello: Guided vs Unguided tours

  1. For our collections class last semester, we went on a field trip to Korners Folly in Kernersville. All of their tours are self guided, so there are no docent led tours of the house. From a visitor standpoint, I thought it was great. Visitors can spend ample time in rooms they find interesting and quickly go through rooms they aren’t as engaged with. From a professional point of view, it actually made me a little nervous. There are tons of objects at Korners Folly and each room is filled with antique furniture. Very few (if any) pieces of furniture were roped off from visitors. Aside from signs (“please keep off furniture,” etc.) the objects and antiques of the house were left to the mercy of the visitors. In addition, Korners Folly has very few staff members, so the director said it would be unlikely that staff or docents would be constantly cycling through the house to keep a watchful eye on visitors. For me, I thought this opened up a world of complications and chances of theft or damage to the house and it’s objects. I can’t really think of a “happy medium” between unguided and guided tours. I guess it is really on a case by case basis and a decision made by the site and it’s staff.


  2. I am loving your observation about how it made you feel controlled and you enjoyed the ability to dip into and out of tours. You are such a visitor of the future!

    As a matter of fact, I read something this morning… but it’s probably not that useful. Peter Samis notes, in The Digital Museum: A Think Guide, regarding use of audio guides (in art museums, ‘natch) that “the decision to rent a tour is thus born of the confluence of two mutually reinforcing demand curves: the first born of a lifetime familiarity with the exhibition subject at a distance, the second of the need to get just-in-time information in the object’s presence.” This book, however, was published in 2007 and smart phone/mobile/web and downloadable/streaming tours were only on the horizon. But even then, he said that the later were being adopted by younger folks at a greater rate than rentable PDAs in galleries.

    I’m sure there is a whole literature on audio tours that is out there, I just don’t know. I would look at the American Association for State and Local History… they’re good at small museum and historic site stuff.

    I’m thinking also of how to combine this with what we talked about Wednesday… There are two countervailing trends here. First, is that with semantic searching and web-based smart phones, audio tours have the potential to be eminently “personalize-able” –since we are trending toward a time when interactions with museums have to meet individual needs. At the same time, observers have long noted that audio tours tend to make zombies out of visitors. There is less interaction, less talking, etc. (Just like walking around campus!) But we want our exhibits, generally, to promote sociability.

    Naturally, the way out of this is to say that audio tour technology, as part of a digitally integrated museum, should be used as a compliment to interpretation, and not be a bell/whistle–i.e. use it sparingly and tactically. Each instance is a contingent instance, after all!

    Soooo… not sure if I answered your question.


  3. When my friend Norman visited me in CT last summer I took him to see the Mark Twain House in Hartford. Due to the age of the house and the many fragile items inside, we went on a guided tour and were not permitted to stray from the tour group. Our guide took us through every room and spent ample time explaining architecture, items in the room, and family stories. Both Norman and I enjoyed this guided tour because the guide ensured that we did not miss anything important. She also made sure that we were given enough time to see everything we wanted to see. The only downside to this guided tour was its length. Due to the sheer size of the house, the tour lasted over an hour. I think Norman’s comment after the tour is pretty accurate about this particular house museum: “This house is absolutely beautiful and I love how much time and information we received, but man am I tired!” I agree with Sonya, I cannot think of a happy medium for guided and unguided tours. I believe there are pros and cons to each tour style.


  4. Marick, I recently visited Reynolda House also, and I think it was one of the most enjoyable house museum tours I have been on. Seth and I accidentally started at what is technically the end of the tour (the solarium), but this did not affect our experience at all. The description labels for each room gave the perfect amount of information, while not going in any chronological order. It is definitely an open-format tour, which gives the visitor a sense of freedom to explore the museum. Although, many rooms and areas are closed off, and it is obvious the ones you are supposed to enter, we still felt that when we went into a new room, we were discovering a new part of the house.

    I also really appreciated the docents who were scattered throughout the museum. I did not feel as if they were monitoring my every move, so it made it easier to ask them questions. They also were able to answer every question I had, which really made the experience that much more enjoyable.

    As you said above, Reynolda House does have far less security restrictions, but it would be so nice to see this more relaxed way of touring in more house museums. I think what also give Reynolda House its freedom is its fewer daily visitors. I too went on a self-guided Biltmore tour, and although it did feel restrictive to be herded along, there’s just no other way of allowing so many people to view the house every day. I would love to hear of more open self-guided house tours, that still provide a good amount of historical context around the North Carolina area.


  5. There is a section of Denver called Four Corners that is kept up as a historic district. It was like the Harlem of the West way back in the day, and all of the homes are restored and kept up by the people who live in them. The homes are surrounded by jazz music sites, restaurants and a museum on black cowboys in the 18th and 19th century. If you stop in their first and get a day pass, which used to be somewhere around 15 bucks for a weekend, you could go through the museum and all the homes completely unguided as many times as you like, and they were all accessible late into the evening. I think it also included a lunch at one of the restaurants.

    Each house was a public site, but owned privately so each of them had different rules. Most of them kept the first floors and basement areas the way they looked when the original owners lived there, and if there was a musician living there, in certain rooms there was a motion sensor that would play their music as long as you stood in the room. Most of the house owners won’t allow you to touch anything, but they also acted as docents in their home as you wandered through.

    There was one house at the end of the block that always had lines of people outside. It kind of looked like Korner’s Folly with the wrap around porch, but it was the only brick home on the block. The owner then….I think the last time I was there was 2011, was the original owners grandson, and he made sure the whole house told the story of the neighborhood during its heyday and how much work his grandfather did to protect the black people that were living there during the Depression and throughout the Civil Rights era.

    The only rule this guy had for his house was that each group of people had to sit with him and talk about “the good ol days” and listen to jazz music and King’s speeches before they touched anything or sat on the furniture. I always wondered if he knew how much he was strengthening the connection between the “stuff” and the history by allowing them into his life and his home for as long as they wanted to be there without being threatened by “do not touch” signs and velvet ropes the way the other homes were.

    Writing this also made me miss how arts-driven Denver is.


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