A Crappy Tourguiding Masterclass (in a very un-crappy house)

In Historic Houses on June 19, 2011 at 5:59 pm

This was a real surprise, and I’m hoping to go back if I’m honest. The Anderson House (also known as the HQ of the Society of the Cincinnati) is on Massachusetts Avenue, the former millionaire’s row, which is absolutely an apt place for it to be. It is INSANE.

Now, unfortunately I don’t have too many pictures as I’m not certain you were allowed to take them (I asked but I got an ambiguous answer, so I was reluctant). It’s free to go in (although opening hours are limited to 1pm-4pm) and you get a voluntary guided tour that takes around half an hour.

Unfortunately, our tour guide was an idiot. I know this because he practically introduced himself as one. I was a smidge behind a tour that had just started, so a kindly volunteer took me to catch up, and asked me where I was from. I said the UK – I have been saying “the UK” a lot because in my experience it takes a bloody long time to explain where Wales is if people don’t know (as many, sadly, don’t) but most of them HAVE head of it. So if I lead in with the UK, they can then ask “where?” as most of them do and I can say Wales, and they already know it’s in the UK. It’s a system that works well.

Kindly volunteer lady introduced me to the tour guide thus: “This is Laura, and she has come all the way from Wales”. I didn’t pipe up and say I had come for more reasons than to see this house, but I didn’t want to shatter their dreams. The tour guide answered with a “Well, welcome! I hope you will understand English.”


Outstanding way to undermine your academic authority there, bub.

We proceeded to whizz through the house at a silly speed, with the words “whatever” and “something” coming up alarmingly frequently. Someone did ask the tour guide how long it took to learn everything he knew, and his answer was about a year and a half. My guesstimate was 12 minutes. He just couldn’t WAIT to get rid of us – we were the last tour of the day and it felt like it. It was sincerely disappointing.

I hope the guide was a one off – there must be other volunteers and I hope they would have some enthusiasm for the place. As ridiculous as it sounds, I really do feel that guardianship of historic buildings (be you the lowliest volunteer or the director general of the National Trust) is a privilege to be a part of, and you owe your visitors the best service you can give. You do not get to point at random objects and share indiscriminate details with no narrative structure; people can’t process the information if you don’t put it into some sort of context. They come to these buildings out of interest and to learn something more about an unfamiliar way of life, and you would think that someone who volunteers to teach them this stuff would have a modicum of enthusiasm! This wasn’t someone who was a bad tour guide; this was someone who was a LAZY tour guide. That, to me, is unforgivable.

That said, the house STILL awed me, and I have been working in the Belmont Mansion all summer. I’m pretty blasé about ballrooms now. It is just the most outsized, opulent behemoth you could ever hope to see. Despite the truly, truly poor interpretation, you must visit. It is the product of ostentatious wealth from a world you can’t imagine ever existing. Like Belmont, it’s still in use for a relatively ceremonial purpose, and so interpretation beyond the volunteers is almost non-existent apart from a few labels in display cases, and so it retains a certain purity of purpose. From the massive black gates to the insane ballroom ceiling, this house was built to make you say “Wow”, and it absolutely does.


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