How to Give a Guided Tour | Ask the Expert

Wondering what it takes to be a museum docent? Please step this way…

By Joe Bills

Jun 18 2018

Photo Credit : Tim Tomkinson

Docents are our conduits to the rich history preserved in our museums, parks, and landmarks. As the assistant manager for visitor services at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, Grace Belanger not only gives tours but also oversees a roster of guides and historic interpreters. We recently took a tour with Belanger, and afterward she shared her thoughts on what makes a good guide, how a tour can go wrong, and how to answer the same questions over and over without going crazy.

Follow Your Interests

When it comes to guiding a tour, there’s no faking it: You have to love your subject. It was Belanger’s interest in Victorian houses in general and Mark Twain in particular that led her to her job. She remembered hearing her father laugh as he reread Huckleberry Finn every year. “He’d have tears in his eyes,” she recalls. “I loved Twain because he brought so much joy to my father.”

Do Your Homework

As luck would have it, the Mark Twain House once had a guide who was also a playwright, so they hired her to write one-act plays to serve as a basis for the character-led tours. Still, Belanger encourages her guides to research their characters and how they would have interacted with the Twain family and the staff. “If you are giving a tour as Maggie the cook, that presents a particular challenge. There are sections of the house that the cook would not likely have gone into. Figuring out how to work around that will give the tour authenticity.”

Consider Your Audience

School groups can be tough, but not for the reasons you’d think. “The kids are usually OK once you involve them in the conversation,” Belanger says. “In fact, they’ll often behave better than the teachers. Teachers can be the worst at following rules.” Her tip for handling a group with a wide range of ages: “If you can engage the youngest, the adults will eat it up.”

Take the Bad with the Good

“Sometimes I’ll ask a group, ‘How many of you are here because you are fascinated by historic homes?’ And some hands go up. ‘Because you are a fan of Twain?’ More hands. Then I’ll ask, ‘How many of you are here because you were dragged by someone else?’ If more than half are in that last group, it’s going to be a challenging tour,” Belanger says, adding that ringing cellphones and screaming babies also can make things difficult. “No matter what, though, we always do our best. And inevitably, even after the worst tour, there’s someone who comes up and tells you how much it meant to them.”

Change Things Up

Mind-numbing repetition is an occupational hazard for tour guides. “There are questions that get asked on nearly every tour, like whether the girl in a particular painting is one of Twain’s daughters,” Belanger says. “It’s important to remember that the people asking today are not the same ones who asked yesterday.” And to help keep things fresh, she recommends coming up with variations on the routine. “Even if you are playing a character, that character probably has multiple stories to tell. One day, I might be interested in talking about the animals that lived here. On another, we can focus on the furniture. Especially when you are dealing with a character like Mark Twain, everything has a story.”

It Takes All Kinds

As for the qualities that make a great docent, Belanger can’t define them, exactly, but she says she can sense them. “Different guides are good for different reasons, and no two tours are the same,” she says. “I’ve seen people who were knowledgeable but who could never find their comfort level, and I’ve seen young people who seemed too shy just blossom into the role. You have to give them a chance to surprise you.”