What’s in a Tour Guide?

Maybe this is a landmark, but I don’t know. Should I care?

In the past year I’ve become a tour guide of sorts, showing folks around at the McCullers Center. I haven’t had much time to reflect on what this means since I just sort of threw myself into it. But after being led around by tour guides in New York, I’m reflecting a little. At the Smith-McCullers house, I’ve got a spiel. It lasts for about 30-45 minutes, includes a video clip, gives plenty of time to the visitors to walk around and ask questions. My spiel is focused on context and history—giving the visitors background on Carson and her family, her life in Columbus, her travels north. It’s basic; it’s straight-forward; hopefully I’m giving the guests what they want. Sometimes that’s all one wants: a chance to hear about and see some history. In that way, I guess I approach my tours like a teaching experience: to teach folks about Carson McCullers in a brief time and then let them initiate any discussion.

But I’ve seen some different techniques while I’ve been here (in notably different situations). The most recent one was disappointing. I went in expecting to see sites and hear about the people who had populated these places, but instead I got a more personal history of the tour guide and the guide’s political and social values. So this got me thinking—again—about tourism: What do we expect? How do we found those expectations? Are we wrong to want the “tourist” experience?

In some ways, this particular tour could be deemed interesting, maybe even enlightening. Certainly not your average tourist spiel (the kind I think I probably give). I heard plenty of amusing anecdotes and clearly understood the guide’s message to respect the past and continue the good work of the past in the future. All good. But I also wanted to better understand the past, to see the sites where those important changes took place, where “history was made.” How am I supposed to continue the excellent work of the past when I can’t quite grasp it? Here I am—I have the chance to actually witness these markers of change—and here I am instead listening to the opinions of the individual.

This brings me back to February House and how the residents and guests there struggled to determine the political nature of art. For Auden, the way was through personal and universal truths; for the Manns, the way was to address conflict head-on in specifics (at that time, America’s entrance into World War II). For all artists there, the struggle was to figure out not only where they stood on matters but how best to communicate an open and honest stance to the public through art.

Maybe it’s not the same question, but I’m still asking it because blogs are the place to be self-indulgent. So how do I determine the nature of what I’m teaching, particularly in my tours? Should I be speaking for Carson’s politics more? Should I be inserting my own?

In the end, I’m pretty happy with my spiel. I hope the specifics get at the heart of the personal and the universal questions. I hope the markers of Carson’s life lead others to examine the issues she examined, without me indulging in a personal diatribe. (If nothing else, people are in and out of the museum in less than an hour, which is sometimes really important:))



Filed under History, Literature, Neighborhood Fun

2 responses to “What’s in a Tour Guide?

  1. Courtney — This is a really interesting post, on a topic that I\’ve dealt with a lot over my own lifetime. That is, I\’ve listened to a great many tour guides, and I myself have put in many, many hours serving as a tour guide . Museums deal with the issue of tour guides all the time, and it is frequently a topic of conversation on museum list-servs, etc. I recently saw a thread where folklorists were sharing their favorite \”ridiculous statements\” made by tour guides. One serious issue regarding tour guides, I think, is that of what I\’ll call \”created mythology.\” It seems that sometimes tour guides get so tired, after a while, of hearing themselves, that they resort to some sort of ”creative mythology” about their subject — just to entertain themselves as much as anything. Truth be told, I admit to the temptation, myself. There were days at the McCullers House that I wanted to just blurt out a big ol\’ lie! I resisted that temptation, but sometimes it wasn\’t easy. And I\’ve known of tour guides who did not resist. I know that I\’ve gotten a little afield of exactly what you\’re writing about in your post, but … well, maybe I wanted to create some mythology — ha! You are right — There\’s more to this \”tourguiding\” gig than might at first be apparent.

    And, as I know you realize, it’s all very close kin to classroom teaching. A teacher\’s opportunities (for political platform, for creating mythology, etc.) are not terribly dissimilar from those of a tour guide.

    Thanks for an interesting post. I love the blog. Hope y\’all are having fun. — Cathy

  2. Susan Hrach

    Courtney, I find this topic really interesting, too! And although I’ve never given tours myself, I was actually present for this NYC tour you describe where we saw few landmarks but heard lots of the guide’s personal politics, and I’ve been thinking about that experience. It struck me during the tour that she was a lecturing teacher — she was very absorbed in the effect she wanted to create (more on that) and not especially interested in making connections with her audience. There were several moments when she discussed southerners coming north (bringing “down home food” with them, looking for new economic opportunities), but she clearly didn’t know or remember that she was talking to a group from Georgia! Um, we relate!

    I’ve had similar disappointments on field trips with students — when you have some specific things in mind that connect with the material you’re reading, and somehow those things don’t get mentioned on the visit. It’s annoying because it falls short of your hopes for students’ academic learning.

    On the other hand, this experience reinforced for me the value of cultural learning (this is from study abroad lingo), which can be equally if not more valuable. Just observing the tour guide’s dress, her speech, listening to her personal points of view, and seeing the neighborhood through her eyes are very worthwhile experiences! It’s true, I don’t know much more about the literary and artistic history of that place than I did before, but I will carry with me a very strong impression of the place as a living, breathing community. The tour guide was fascinating to me because she embodied the place in a way that no one else surely could have.

    So, I guess that’s something both you and Cathy can also feel good about as representatives of the McCullers Center. Each of you leave visitors with an impression of Columbus and Carson’s world that have nothing to do with the dates and facts of her history, but everything to do with what visitors will ultimately find memorable.

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