As we shared in a recent post, museum visitors are split right down the middle about the value of guided tours, and they have very strong opinions either way. And while we think this issue has ramifications for museums across the board, it has the most impact on historic house museums, which tend to rely heavily on guided tours as a primary form of interpretation.
To delve deeper into this issue, we turned back to the results of our recent survey of Connecticut Cultural Consumers (funded by the Connecticut Humanities Council). First, we found that Museum Advocates were more likely to prefer guided tours than Core Visitors to museums.
Additionally, the type of museum on whose behalf respondents were participating made some difference; those who took the survey for historic house, art, or history museums were somewhat more likely to prefer guided tours than those who responded for science and children’s museums. These results may have to do with visitor expectations for the kind of interpretation they often encounter at different types of museums. However, we suspect the age of the respondent has even more to do with it. Respondents to historic house, art, or history museums were overwhelmingly over the age of 50 – an audience that is much more likely to enjoy guided tours than younger respondents (though even here only barely more than half enjoy tours).
In fact, visitors’ love-hate relationships with guided tours are most apparent among respondents of different ages and parental status. Older audiences were far more likely to enjoy guided tours than younger ones and moms with young children were the least likely to enjoy guided tours, feeling they were not age-appropriate for their children (see graph, below).
What does all this mean? If your museum relies on guided tours as a (or the) primary interpretation method, chances are that only a little less than half of your visitors are satisfied. And widening your audience base to include families, for instance, may be more challenging.
What about the majority of museum visitors who dislike—even hate—guided tours? What kinds of experiences might appeal to them instead of guided tours? When we asked our Connecticut respondents “If you could do whatever you wanted at a historic house museum, with no restrictions, what would you do?” among their top wishes were:
- Experiencing the museum at their own pace
- More hands-on, participatory experiences
- Touching, or otherwise getting closer to, original artifacts
- Consuming food and drink—historically appropriate or not
- Participating in special or social events, either as a guest or a host
- Extending visits to include full days, overnights, or even longer periods of time
A lot of these wishes are time-honored alternatives that are accepted in the field. Some of them, on the other hand, may make the hair on the back of your neck stand up (we will be delving a little deeper into this when we talk more in depth about touching original artifacts in a later post).
We would love to hear your thoughts and questions. To share or ask questions, simply click on “comments” below. (If you are reading this from your e-mail subscription to the blog, please go to our blog's website to add a comment.) Please include the name of your museum as well!