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?