Reflections on Museums 1: Tour Buses, Advance Organizers, and Truth in Organizational Communication

This is the first of four posts from 2010 that explore issues in designing for learning in museums and that I am re-publishing on this new blog about museums.

One of the more interesting surprises of my recent visit to Europe was my discovery of the city tour—you know, those double-decker buses that drive around a city and point out the sites to people.

In the past, I had never seen the point to them. I always felt that the history museum for the city was the ideal launching pad for a visit. These museums describe how the city evolved and, in the process, introduce the culture, key places, and famous people. Indeed, some even have replicas, models, paintings, or photos of major places, along with statues, paintings and photos of famous people. I’m still a fan of these institutions as a starting point for a visit. For example, if you’re visiting Montreal, make sure you check out the Montreal History Centre. Visiting Atlanta? Check out the Atlanta History Center. Chicago? Check out the Chicago Historical Society. Berlin? The Berlin Story.

But these institutions admittedly have a few limitations as a starting point for a visit. Some cities don’t really have such institutions. For example, Toronto doesn’t. (They’ve talked about it, but so far, nothing’s there.) Baltimore’s City Life museums served such a purpose but went bankrupt, and the one city museum—the one-of-a-kind Public Works museum—closed as part of a budget cut. (The Maryland Historical Society fills in some of the slack.)

So what’s a visitor to do?

Take my partner’s advice and take the tour bus. At first, it was something for him to kill time when I had to finish a report during our visit to Istanbul. He loved the experience. I thought it was just about the chance to ride on the open, upper deck of a double-decker bus (no selling point to this cold-adverse person). But he said it gave him a sense of the layout of the city, and he appreciated the background provided by the tour guide.

He also appreciated the flexibility of European city tours. All are hop on—hop off, which let visitors get on and off. If a site intrigues a visitor, the visitor can get off the bus and explore the site, then resume the tour.

He loved the experience so much that, by the third city, he would ask, “When am I going to be able to take my tour bus?”

But along the way, he talked me into trying the tour bus, too. And I found that, like the guided tours of a software applications for new users, or that museums post on their websites, these tour buses act as advance organizers (like those Ausubel proposes for educational programs) for experiencing a new city. Most, though not all, tours provided visitors with a brief history of the city—starting with its founding, introduced the major sections of the city (and, in some cases, put it into the context of its history), and then introduced major sites.

Some are sites that visitors are likely to explore later, like museums and historic locations; others are curiosities, like the Torre Agbar in Barcelona, a building so unique in its shape and size that only the least curious visitor could ignore it (though it is not really a tourist site).

I also learned a few practical things along the way—some that merely prepare me better for future tours, others that inform work in information and instructional design.

  • As a result of having no cover and being above the traffic, the views on the upper level were much clearer than those on the lower level . Or, to be more precise, although I may have been warm on the covered and somewhat heated lower deck of the bus, I couldn’t’ see much.
  • Most tours operate in several languages (one operated in as many as ten). To do so, most use a system that lets visitors choose the language of choice.
  • To make sure that the right narration plays at the right time, the default narration is music. Although I am not certain of this, it seems that the buses and the key sites are equipped with some sort of technology that tells the bus when it’s entering a particular district; that, in turn, causes the system to play the recording associated with that location. The system seems to experience glitches when a bus is idling near a signal; the same narration plays repeatedly until the bus moves away from the signal. (This was a problem in Madrid.)
  • Some aspects of consistency are overlooked. All of the Spanish cities had at least two bus routes and they slightly overlapped. In Barcelona, the English narration for one route was by someone with an American accent; the other by someone with a British accent. But in the overlapping part of the routes, the system only had one recording. The sudden change from an American to British voice seemed a bit odd.
  • As an added benefit to these systems, the tour companies provide a set of high quality ear phones that visitors can keep. As someone who goes through 3 or 4 sets of earphones a year, this was an added bonus, worth $8 to $10 per tour.
  • The tour bus we took in Berlin was the exception to these tours; we had a live tour guide who narrated in both German and English. Even though I was the only Anglophone for part of the tour, he continued to narrate in both languages. And he even translated the jokes!
  • This live narration, complete with opinion, provided for a more colorful tour—not just in terms of the jokes, but also the opinions. While providing opinion admittedly risks offending the audience, the absence of some admittedly less-than-pleasant facts can also make a tour seem unnecessarily sanitized. For example, when pointing out the Department of Defense headquarters in Madrid, the narrator of the tour bus noted that construction started in 1932 but wasn’t finished for two decades afterwards. He failed to mention that the country was embroiled in a civil war during those years and the capital was temporarily moved away from Madrid, which might have had an effect on construction.
  • Professional organizational communicators often wonder what to do about similar situations. This just reinforces my belief that it’s important to address the “big box in the middle of the room.” Ignoring it does not make the issue go away. Instead, people are likely to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, they’ll do so knowledgeably (even if they have a different viewpoint than the organization would prefer). More often than not, something will seem weird and they’ll make up their own explanation—complete or not, accurate or not. By acknowledging and explaining the situation, the communicator is allowed to address the situation in a way that’s to their benefit. (Kind of what everyone recommended that Tiger Woods should have done when his scandal first broke, but that’s another story.)

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