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Museum Tours: To Guide or not to Guide

June 29, 2010

We had an interesting discussion in our African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project today at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The students visited Davies Manor Plantation last Friday and were guided on the tour by the site manager, Nancy McDonough.  Today we talked about what impressed the students most about the visit.  Jasmine noted that being in the Big House was a powerful experience because she knew that as an African-American, the building was off-limits to her in the  slavery era.  A couple of students raised the absence of labels in the exhibits – something they enjoyed.  The lack of labels was in sharp contrast to the previous Friday visit to the Pink Palace, and the Friday before at the National Civil Rights Museum.  I noted that at the Tenement Museum in New York, all tours are guided and there are no labels anywhere.  (The National Civil Rights Museum and Tenement Museum are two of seventeen International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.)

Our discussion brought to mind some studies I recently read.  Survey results from Reach Advisors on Museum Audience Insights is quite revealing and perhaps surprising when it comes to guided and audio tours compared to self-guided tours with lots of exhibit labels.  (History News, quarterly magazine of the American Association of State and Local History reports a summary of the survey results in the current issue.)  The survey results suggest that at least a substantial portion of museum visitors want to be left alone to view exhibits, unaided by audio tours or guides.  In fact, the History News article reports that a double-digit percentage of visitors find audio and guided tours absolutely annoying!

Check the Reach Advisors web link for a wealth of survey data on museum visitation.  What surprises do you find in these data?

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