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The Changing Face of Museum Tours

There was a time when the mention of a museum tour evoked images of branded blazers, heavily scripted journeys around a single collection and a marching troupe lead by an umbrella wielding uniformed guide. For some attractions that time is still now but, for many forward thinking museums and individual arts and heritage lovers, there are new types of museum tours that are attracting a new type of visitor.

A quick online search of “museum tours” will bring you back a plethora of options, from behind the scenes tours of your favourite collection to a one on one bespoke tour of a museum you’ve never visited with a local guide. There are no longer heavily prescribed ways to learn about museum collections and I believe that is a thing to celebrate. There are a myriad ways to enter, explore and learn about well-known museums as well as unfamiliar collections and an engaging tour can be a great place to start.

museum tour

Who needs a tour guide anyway?

For many years, museums relied on human tour guides to assist their visitors with finding objects, discovering new collections and learning about the history and importance of the objects they cared for but in recent years many have turned to technology to reduce costs and improve the reach of tours. Without the need for a human tour guide the content of the tour becomes much more malleable. Pre-recorded tours can be replayed for those who need additional time to digest, translated into many languages that your staff members do not speak and made cheaper or even free to use.

With the first audio tour available to the public in 1952 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam it’s hardly new technology but the impact of those first audio tours can be felt throughout the museum industry. Most museums have had a form of audio tour at some point and, whilst many have now been adapted into personal phone technology and apps, the audio tour is still a strong contender today when looking to increase tour throughput. The traditional audio tours options for multiple languages and variable content combined with its reusable and easy to use technology made it an obvious choice for sharing understanding of collections.

Audio tours transformed the way the public interacted with the museum collections. Multiple languages could be used to open up collections to new audiences and visitors could learn more about objects at their own pace, revisiting objects that they wanted to spend more time on and skipping over those that were more familiar to them. Even before the advent of the smartphone the easy to use technology put learning into the hands of many people around the world.

Today over 2.5 billion people own a smart phone and this is allowing many museums to utilise the technology already in the hands of their visitors to reduce hardware costs and instead concentrate on providing content for their apps and downloadable tours. We still need knowledgeable tour guides with the ability to teach and inspire but now they can reach hundreds of visitors at once instead of small groups.

Learning through play

Whilst we’ve become accustomed to downloading audio tours, interactive maps and museums apps over the last decade there is still a long way to go to introduce technology that can actively encourage you to explore something you’ve not visited before. Looking to trends like the Pokémon Go! launch in 2016 which used augmented reality to get players visiting and collecting Pokémon in various public locations it would seem that gamifying the exploration of museums might just be the answer.

When Pokémon Go Launched in 2016 it seemed like a blessing to many museums who could count on new visitors looking for the latest Pokémon to capture inside their walls. Whether they were embracing the new found visitors and encouraging them, like The Museum of London with special events and free wi-fi or were just happy to play host like the British Museum who saw around 10,000 sessions of Wi-Fi used per day to play the game. It seemed like augmented reality combined with the chance to ‘gain’ something could really encourage new visitors to museums they wouldn’t normally visit.

As yet no museum has managed to produce the same collecting feeling that made Pokémon Go so addictive however many museums have included augmented reality in their tours and find interesting and new ways to breathe movement and life into stationary, historical objects. Pokémon Go style game play may be a little way off for many museums but we already have similar style apps and tours in a number of museums.

The Museum of Celtic Heritage in Salzburg offer a mixed audio and augmented reality tour in which children and adults can find and meet tiny inhabitants of the museum who tell stories of the artefacts on display. The tours mix classic story-telling with exploration as you find new people around the display cabinets and learn about their contents.

Tours with a twist

If you don’t like the idea of removing the human element from tours there are still options that don’t require an employee of the museum to show you around. Whilst we all agree that museum workers are vital and important, sometimes you might want to explore with someone who isn’t on the museums payroll and can include elements that an official museum tour guide could not such as a local café stop, multiple museums with the same guide and a place to stay for the night.

In 2016 Airbnb began offering “experiences” with their hosts alongside their regular accommodation offerings. Amongst the many offerings are guided tours of museums, art galleries and historical attractions aimed at showing off a more local knowledge of the museum in the context of its home city so you can combine a museum visit with an overnight stay with the same guide, allowing a more personal connection and social experience for the visitor.

It’s difficult to know yet if this is encouraging more visitors to attend museums they may not normally have ventured into, encouraged by a passionate host. With over 1.5 million bookings for experiences each year it’s not hard to imagine that this could offer a growth opportunity for museums by working with locals to bring in new visitors. Would it be possible for you to reach out to those in your community who are already offering these types of experiences and work alongside them to create a more personal tour for visitors to your local area?

Less likely to offer you a place to stay but equally engaging are Museum Hack; a private company who operate renegade tours of the world’s most famous museums. You can join an existing tour based on a number of pre-created itineraries or hire a guide to create a bespoke tour just for you. Each small group tour includes interesting information about the collections, social activities so you can get to know your group a little better, and is guided not just by your official tour guide but also by the wishes of the group. It brings a fresh perspective to a museum you may have visited hundreds of times as you explore stories from the collections, your guide and the other group members.

Operating throughout the US, Museum Hack, has redefined museum tours for a new audience. Photo opportunities, food and drink stops, personalised content and a whole lot of laughter turn the traditional tour on its head and encourage visitors who would normally avoid museums, such as pre-wedding parties, to learn whilst they have fun. Not only are the tours great fun but Museum Hack intend to put museums back at the core of our communities, breaking down stereotypes and barriers which stop many people form visiting museums in the first place.

It is especially important for younger museum visitors to play a part in producing the tour itinerary themselves. Many visitors are now so comfortable with curating their own lives via social media feeds, personal collections and technological tools that the thought of partaking in a tour that doesn’t include their own preferences is at odds with their world view. Visitors who have grown up with themselves at the heart of whatever content they consume, whether that’s online or TV on demand it’s unlikely a prescribed tour is going to attract someone looking for a personalised experience.

It might seem outside of your control but by thinking about the ways in which these tours are different to what you offer today you may go some way to bridging the gap. Do your tours give options for social time, networking opportunities and personal engagement? Could that be the key to making your tours more popular?

Combining collections

As we look for ways to make tours more personal it is also worth remembering that just because your collections are arranged in a specific way i.e. by geographical or historical borders there may be other ways of curating a tour that combines what seem to be disparate parts of your collection.

The V&A, London introduced LGBQT tours based on an idea which came from their LGBQT working group. The tours run once a month and are a free guided tour which combines a number of collections to create a thread running through the museum highlighting interesting and sometimes shocking LGBQT content. Whether it’s the artist or the art itself, the tours use the guides own personal preferences and group feedback to navigate the museum. The tour guide can choose to include any items in the vast museum and share stories, anecdotes and personal experiences associated with them.

By creating a tour which catered to an under-represented visitor group, produced by members of the LGBQT community and making the tour free and drop-in, the V&A has made a normally hidden history more visible and accessible. In 2017, the group recorded the tour for their social media followers and in the past 2 years it has been viewed more than 12,000 times. Many people who may have missed out on the V&A because they felt a traditional tour left out their own personal stories were suddenly seen and acknowledged by the museum.

Dawn Hoskin, co-chair of the V&A’s LBGTQ Working Group commented that “ I hope the guide’s personal reflections that may feature in these tours will in turn encourage visitors to feel more confident in reading and responding to objects on their own terms”

Access all areas

And not content with seeing just what’s on display to your regular visitors, tours that encourage revisits to a well-known museum can include behind the scenes and give an idea of what working in a museum is really like. A visitor may have visited you before but the lure of seeing something not always open to the public can give a seasoned visitor another reason to return.

Behind the scenes tours, like the Spirit Collection tour at the Natural History Museum, London provide their tours with access to areas that a regular visitor would not be able to see. Allowing the public to see the work that goes on behind the collections not only attracts a new audience to your museum but can give a greater understanding of your important work and need for future funding. A deeper understanding of work going on beneath the surface allows visitors to appreciate that not everything in the museum is on display and not everyone working for the museum is public-facing.

These tours can be much more involved, engaging and personal as staff members share their experiences, loves and loathes with the tour group. Allowing for personal interaction that a pre-planned and prescribed tour may miss.

Guided tours in general may evoke memories of school trips and scripted content but I think we can look forward to a future in museums where all interested can be catered for, personalised content can be created and shared en-masse and many more thousands of people can come into contact with your collection on their own terms. More engaging tours, shared widely should help you attract more new visitors to your collections and exhibitions and help you fund your mission for the future.

About the author – Carly Straughan

Carly Straughan began her career working in tourist attractions on a 3 month contract until she found a “real job” and almost 15 years later she is still here. She now works with museums, arts and heritage, and tourist attractions worldwide and she is a passionate supporter of the industry.

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