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:))