5 Steps to Give Amazing Museum Tours

So the BEST part of my job (apart from my hilarious, amazing co-workers) is giving tours. I give tours to preschoolers, school-age kids, adults, and seniors. They come from all different places, religions, and socioeconomic statuses. In fact, some of my most rewarding tours are to groups of kids whose knowledge of the world doesn't seem to go past their own neighborhood. By giving an engaging tour, I not only inform them, I can inspire them to explore the world. Even if someone's exploration only goes as far as the Museum where I work, it is my job to make sure that any memories they make while I'm with them are positive and vivid.

So here are five things that will help you give engaging tours - keep in mind there's much more than this that goes along with great tour-giving!

1. Practice public speaking. That's what you're doing when you're giving a tour, after all. I have a pretty extensive history with public speaking and being in front of a crowd: I did drama, forensics, debate, and choir in high school. I have a degree in applied communication, and I did theatre in college. One of the most thrilling things I did in college was get up in front of my classmates and read my history papers to them. I'm not even kidding. It was a thrilling experience for me.
    I encourage you to take a public speaking class, particularly if you're a historian or scientist. While you may have passion for your chosen field, it's incredibly important to be able to communicate that passion in an appropriate manner to the general public. A person with no background knowledge of your field should be able to leave with some understanding of the topic, even if it's the basics.
   Do I go into the historiography behind the Declaration of Independence, or every nuance of the evolution of warfare leading up to World War I? Nope. But I communicate those things in a sneaky way - I plant little seeds that help people understand more than just the basics. That's why they're on a tour, after all.
   Some tips for public speaking: If you think you're loud enough, be louder. Avoid fillers: "like", "um", "uh", or clicking noises can catch peoples attention more than your actual content will. Then you lose credibility. Be funny, be poignant, and mostly be yourself. Don't let slip ups or interruptions slow you down; people will ask questions, kids will get distracted, and you will need to be flexible. Go with the flow.

2. Write a script and practice. Don't ever try to wing it on a tour, even if it's about something you're totally comfortable with. The first month I started here, I took a notepad to every exhibit and on every tour I observed. I got artifact folders from curatorial and studied every artifact in detail until I was comfortable with it. Then I wrote down all of my main points and wandered through the tour on my own without an audience. My script is my own and I don't expect or want anyone else to give my exact tour, but I have stolen some ideas and concepts from my coworkers and volunteers. Hey, we're talking about the same artifacts, we can have some similarities. By making a script, you also commit to memory what you're supposed to focus on and where you're going next. If you have memory problems, I find that hand-writing and then typing a script can help you remember it. But remember -  you're not trying to give a monologue. You're trying to engage and be personable on a tour. By memorizing a script and not being flexible, you're not allowing your audience to connect with you. You are not supposed to be a recording, you're supposed to be an expert. The more personable your script is, the more likely your guests will enjoy you as a person and therefore your institution. Also, don't carry your notes around with you. It just looks bad. Don't know how to make a script? Go to another museum or attraction and take a tour!

3. Be prepared for all kinds of questions. Answer them all if you can. That's why it's important to know the basic background information about the theme of an exhibit, but most questions I get are directly artifact-related. That's why it's important to study the artifact files if you have access to them. If you don't know the answer to any question, be honest. It's easier to say, "We should Google that!" than be wrong.
On the other hand... If a kid asks an incredibly sensitive question dealing with race, religion, politics, or sexuality, don't get flustered. Be tactful, honest, and appropriate. Only then will you keep up the level of respect they should have for you. While most kids on field trips are pretty well-behaved, you can bet that at least one will have something nasty to say to try and make you slip up. If you come up with a snappy, no-nonsense answer, they will get the message. If you blush and stumble over an awkward response, you may as well throw in the towel. Gaining back any respect from the entire group will be incredibly hard. Adults will also ask questions - some of them trickier than others. We often get "How much is this thing worth?" "Doesn't one guy own all this stuff?" or my personal favorite, "Isn't all of this fake?" While you would think that people on tours are there to be educated, some just want to be right. If you get questions like this, answer honestly and politely. One response I give when people ask if our two Egyptian mummies are fake is this: "Well, see we just don't have the time to make something like this, unless of course you'd like to volunteer to be mummified." It's snarky, but if said with the right intonation, it can also help you avoid conflict.

4. Be sensitive to people with different beliefs. We live in the Bible belt. Sometimes it's challenging to talk about sensitive topics like evolution, geological dating, and other religions. It's also challenging to talk about the American presidents without getting into a political discussion. It's important to keep these topics as neutral as possible - we do that by sticking to the facts. It's sometimes hard to remember that people have different political beliefs and while guests will make jokes about not liking a few current administrations. As a tour guide you must remain neutral. Even if you agree or disagree with what the guests say about how good or bad a recent president was, there may be someone in the museum who overhears you and is offended by what you say. That person then makes a judgment call about not just you, but the entire institution. A museum exists for education, not opinions. It's really easy to get caught up in the political dilemmas happening in the world, but do keep in mind that opinions can easily be misconstrued as facts to those on your tour. You want to be seen as a wise, neutral party. Your opinions should never be offered up. Stick to the facts only: President Bush just had a beautiful library opened in his name, President Obama's mother was from Kansas, etc. That way you look like a true professional.

5. Have fun. If it's clear to your guests that you don't care about a topic, exhibit, or even about them, they're going to lose interest. One of the best ways to do this is to share your favorite artifacts with them. For me, it's the mummies and our Nazi flag. I get more passionate when I talk about these artifacts than anything else, but it's a good thing because I normally end the first floor tour with the mummies and end the second floor tour with the Nazi flag. This offers a memorable ending, which is what a lot of people remember more than anything else. Then they have a positive memory to leave with and you've just given it your all. It's okay to get really passionate about one or two artifacts, just remember the others might be someone's favorite too. You can truly have fun if you're sharing passions with someone. If it's something you're not into, try watching some YouTube videos about the subject, talk to an expert about it, or read some historical fiction dealing with the topic.Here are some of my favorites: YouTube's Crash Course, any of your college professors, or Ken Follett's Century Trilogy. Be careful with the historical fiction, but keep in mind that most authors do their research. This will just help you get passionate. Keep in mind that tours should be a mental break for you. You can actually escape that grant proposal, programming challenge, or staff meeting for a few hours and enjoy sharing your gifts and talents.

So those are my top 5! Enjoy some photos of me on tours.   Just FYI, if you ever need help developing a tour or running a script by someone, just ask! I love hearing other peoples interpretations of history and I gave almost 200 tours to right around 8,000 people in the past year alone.

As you can see, I like to talk with my hands. Now another great tip is to practice - if you see guests wandering around the museum, offer to talk to them about an artifact. Then give your part of that tour, just as I am with the family in the last picture.

Good luck!



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