Volunteers' Voice #7 – Tour guides

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, talks about working with volunteer tour guides to make guided tours at MERL more interactive and engaging…

I had a meeting with my volunteer tour guide team last week which prompted me to dedicate this post to volunteer tour guides. Tours are an excellent way in which museums engage with visitors, bringing the collections alive and making the visitor experience all the more memorable. MERL has an excellent volunteer tour guide team who really are an asset to the museum. Volunteer tour guides are students, graduates, post graduates and members of the local community.

The team provides general 40 minute tours around the museum on weekends and for booked groups during the week. A special part of the weekend tours is a visit to the object store on the mezzanine floor, which is otherwise closed to visitors. This is where we keep all the objects that are not on open display and it’s a great opportunity for visitors to see behind the scenes. When I joined MERL in July 2010 there were only three guides who were providing all the weekend tours and they were using a set script. The small team was struggling and needed support. I set up bi-monthly meetings with the team which still continue.   I recruited new volunteers from the student body and the local community to boost the withering numbers of the team. At these meetings we discuss any problems, organise the rotas and it is a good excuse for a bit of socialising between the team.

The script had originally been devised by a consultant to highlight the main themes of the new galleries when MERL moved to new premises, and was designed to provide background information about the collections. From talking to the tour guides I realised the script was no longer working for training purposes or for the visitor experience. It was hard to allow for interaction between the tour guide and their group, or to tailor a tour to the interests of  the group.  So we decided to take a new approach. In order to personalise the experience, new volunteers are now encouraged to choose objects they would like to talk about within their tour.  The Museum is divided into sections and they choose a set number of objects from each section. They then research the stories behind their chosen objects. Each guide gives a slightly different tour but this means that the tour guide is interested in the objects they are talking about and that translates into enthusiasm and passion which hopefully rubs off onto the visitors.

The tour guide team on a CREW training day
The tour guide team on a CREW training day

To assist with the facilitation of training new guides and the implementation of the new tours, we used CREW who helped us to explore new ideas, increase our confidence, mould us as a team and think about where we as a team are going.  Since then we haven’t looked back; the team has continued to grow with new guides being trained at the start every academic year, which continues to boost the team bringing new life, ideas and providing visitors with more exciting tours.

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