Last week, I was following a thread on the AASLH Historic House Museum List Serv with great interest. The crux of the posting was the question “Is the Guided Tour for Historic Houses Dead?”


In my experience that depends on what your audience and community say.

Many of the respondents on the thread were very passionate and protective of what sounds like the traditional guided tour. What I mean when I say “traditional guided tour” is this: lecture style, focused on decorative arts and room use that isn’t very participatory for guests. Most of the comments in defense of the guided tour felt that their tour guides or docents do things to engage their guests like ask them what they’re interested in and how long they want the tour to be.

While some visitors do still want a traditional lecture style guided tour – most do not. The 2010 Connecticut Cultural Consumers study, showed that overall “only forty-five percent of respondents indicated that they enjoy a guided tour experience.” These were members and frequent visitors of twenty-four Connecticut museums and historic sites. Even with the 60+ group it didn’t go higher than 55% of visitors enjoying the guided tour.

We need to acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to tour or program styles at historic houses. If your current visitors are actively funding your organization, your community is happy and supportive, and this trend is predicted for you into the future, then perhaps you don’t need to change.

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For most historic houses however, this isn’t the case and change is needed. One of the biggest mistakes historic house professionals can make is to assume that we know what visitors want. We don’t know until we ask both current and potential audiences. Some of the List Serv comments voiced support for this strategy.

Melissa Peterson, Site Manager of the Charles Lindbergh Historic Site in Minnesota, talked about how data changed their guided tours and programming overall. Based on input from visitors and non-visitors, they have transitioned from a lecture tour to a conversational tour and shortened the experience overall.

Andrea Malcomb mentioned that evaluation results led to changes at the Molly Brown House in Colorado detailing the community work. Their program still includes guided tours, but they have added specialized tours and special programs for all age groups in order to target and address the needs of their diverse audience.

The Anarchist Guide for Historic House Museums page was referenced in the List Serv thread. Franklin Vagnone’s work is a radical approach to changing the visitor experience of historic house museums. He advocates for access to denied spaces and finding ways to use rooms as they were originally designed to be used. Whether you agree with his style or not, he is asking his potential audience members what they want.

When it comes right down to it, the question isn’t: “Is the guided tour dead?” The question is: “Is the guided tour what your visitors and potential visitors want now and into the future?

I heart museums

— Cindy Olsen, Director of Material Culture, Historic Ford Estates