The powers of people

I was at Chawton again yesterday (before going to Petworth for yesterday’s mobile fun) to meet with Jane, one of the house’s most experienced volunteers. I’d challenged her to give me a 45 minute tour of her choice. She really wanted me to tell her what I was most interested to hear, but I wouldn’t. I wanted her unbiased perception of what were the most “important” bits of her her encyclopedic knowledge of Chawton and the surrounding area to share, given the 45 minute time limit.

(I always recommend that 45 minutes is the absolute maximum for a guided tour. In fact I suggest that half an hour is what people should work to. People who want more will stay behind to chat, but there is some evidence from the National Trust’s monitoring of visitors for conservation, that the average dwell time in a house, whatever it’s size is about 45 minutes.)

In the end she gave me what I’d call an architectural tour of the house, pointing out how the thick exterior walls of the the original manor had become interior walls after Richard Knight’s extensions. It was great, and reminded me about some of the things I’d forgotten about being a tour guide that make guided tours (with the right guide) so entertaining.

I’ve always said that guided tours often offer the best historic house experience. A good paid or volunteer guide can weave a compelling story as s/he escorts you around the house. He or she can reveal things you might otherwise have have missed. They can respond to your interests, and level of expertise, to give you a tailored experience. But Jane reminded me how they can transform the place, by pointing out those thick walls, or turning over a framed note hanging on the wall to reveal the ancient deeds from which the paper had been recycled. A good guide turns their audience into detectives – rather than simply telling them how Montague Knight installed a safe into what once had been an old garderobe chute, they help their audience work it out for themselves – a moment of insight, that emotional trigger where everything that has come before “clicks into place and reveals the shape of the whole” as Tynan Sylvester puts it.

Of course, Jane’s tour also demonstrated that the VERY best historic house experience would be to have the guide all to yourself. Not everyone on a larger tour (and there were a couple running yesterday that we bumped into) could have lifted the framed note from the wall to read the reverse. As I hung it back on the hook, I had conservation alarm bells ringing in my head. Every handling, every movement of this glass framed note (which Montague Knight had hidden beneath the floor for future generations to find) put it at risk. The more people given the opportunity I had, the greater the chance that it might be damaged.

Not everyone can do what I did, arrange a personal tour at a time of my convenience after an email introduction from the Director. For those other tour groups we met, the guided tour experience gets diluted, less personal, less tailored to each individual’s interests.

The technological approach I’m investigating might be able to address some of the personalisation challenges, but can it ever offer the magical moments of insight that Jane offered me?

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