January 25, 2018

"In Praise of Guided Tours/They’re tacky. They’re touristy. There’s no other way I’d rather sightsee."

Writes Jeffrey Bloomer in Slate.
... on a visit to the Frick Collection in New York, I browsed the galleries quietly on my own, but the former residence only really came to life when I overheard a tour already in progress. The guide described Henry Clay Frick’s preferences in his commissioned portraits of women, and I could hear a raised eyebrow in his voice. “He liked to have all of them in the frame. Head. Feet. All of them,” he said. “Feet?” an older woman asked. “Oh yes, feet.” The guide turned the stiff galleries into a site of early-century tea talk. I was riveted and a little aghast. Had my resistance to getting led around like a rube cost me riveting trivia and crucial gossip on every trip I’ve ever taken? Had I ever really been anywhere without a tour? Why did no one tell me?

38 comments:

MadisonMan said...

How does one know the guide is telling the truth here?

If I were leading tours day in and day out, I'd make stuff up. What are the chances that some Frick know-it-all will be in the tour? Zero. And if they show up, or challenge you, you can just say "That's not what I've heard"

MadisonMan said...

(MadisonMan as a State Capitol docent):

"Here we are in the Rotunda, and if you look up you see a beautiful painting by Edwin Howland-Blashfield. He was a very short man and insisted that all his assistants be shorter than he was, so that meant he hired only teen boys who hadn't had their growth spurts. In contrast, the rotunda pedentives around the Rotunda, glass mosaics by Kenyon Cox, were created by people who were at least 5' 10" tall, because Cox needed them to be able to reach the tops of the mosaics. Cox and Howland-Blashfield routinely drank together after a hard day's work of artisting at the bar inside the Park Hotel."

tcrosse said...

Mark Twain gets a lot of mileage out of tour guides in Innocents Abroad.

Ann Althouse said...

I always avoid these things, but I've been a docent on Frank Lloyd Wright house tours a couple times.

John Tuffnell said...

Loved the tour guide scene in Slumdog Millionaire. The accidental docent.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HET_lt0_x9E

Big Mike said...

Best art museum experience I ever had was in the early 1970s as a student spending his summer traveling around Europe with his trusty Eurail pass. I was in Amsterdam and I met two lovely art history majors on their way to the Rijksmuseum. I fell in with them and they spent the day showing off their knowledge to the gawking math major. I think the one was going to do her dissertation on Lucas Cranach, I don’t recall whether it was going to be on the Elder or the Younger (or both?) after 45+ years. They also told me where the Van Gogh Museum was, not far from the Rijksmuseum, so I went there alone the next day and fell in love with his paintings.

FleetUSA said...

I know it is a bit more expensive but we've had good luck with single guide just with us (2-4). Look for website toursbylocals.com Experts with a personal touch in many countries. Also, they give excellent local knowledge to sort out all the local restaurants.

Etienne said...

There used to be a British TV program where a Nun toured the art galleries and described the painting that attracted her. Sister Wendy dove right in and after explaining the historical basis, often critiqued the art. People would giggle when she described the lust and sexuality of a painting.

I think she is still alive, and has written many books. The interesting thing is her knowledge of Latin. A dead language that was the language used when most of the art that interests her was produced. It is said she translated many medieval works from Latin to English in her fortress of solitude (trailer home).

Bad Lieutenant said...

Ann Althouse said...
I always avoid these things, but I've been a docent on Frank Lloyd Wright house tours a couple times.

1/25/18, 10:12 AM


What are your feelings on the Golden Rule?

Dan Ledbetter said...

Because in all likelihood you could stand in front of each piece of art, google it, and get all the trivia you want about it. Now, of course, if you simply want the social interaction...

rehajm said...

Speaking of accidental docent: when you take art classes in high school and college you get assignments to the Met or the MFA or the Frick or MOMA or wherever, where you go to the museum, you grab the little stool and wander to the art piece or showcase of canopic jars or whatever and plop down with a couple of your classmates with your notebook there's always a half dozen of these self guided rubes what set up behind you hoping to discover what the hell it is they're supposed to be looking at.

Just suck it up and take the fucking tour.

Freeman Hunt said...

I've always avoided tours, but I started planning a big trip to a far off place, and it suddenly occurred to me that I would enjoy the trip much more if I could see the things I wanted to see without having to plan itineraries or meals or lodging and without having to research every little thing in order to know exactly what to look for. Therefore, probably going with a big tour.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

Most large cities have a "Greeters" program. They are free personal tours of a city. The guides tend to be retired professors and other professionals. The guides don't except tips. But we've taken them out for a light lunch or drink.

It's a wonderful program. When you request your tour they'll ask if you have any preferences, history, food, art, etc. Then they try to tailor the guide to your interest.

Freeman Hunt said...

I hope it's full of old people.

richlb said...

Guided tours can be very insightful. It all depends on the tour rep that is leading you, and to a lesser extent, the size of the tour group. My wife and I tend to avoid them only because we aren't fans of the rigid timekeeping you need to follow with them. But when we do go on one, we always have a better experience than wandering on our own.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

Am I the only one who thinks it's a waste of time to go to art museums. I end up googling the painting I'm interested in and the read the description and room in to details that are interesting.

In a museum, even with a guide, you can't really "see" the painting. I was really annoyed in the Louvre this summer. The lighting cast glare on the painting!

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

Room=zoom

Ipso Fatso said...

I took a guy on a tour of infamous spots in Chicago once, 110th & Avenue O (Speck), The Walgreens at Wells and North (Tylenol Murders), 2122 N. Clark (St. Valentines Day Massacre) and Cheeks, Gacy's favorite bar. I guess that is being a docent.

Freeman Hunt said...

"Am I the only one who thinks it's a waste of time to go to art museums. I end up googling the painting I'm interested in and the read the description and room in to details that are interesting."

There is a group of paintings I especially love and had looked at a lot online. Then I came upon them unexpectedly in a museum where they were showing for a limited time. I literally gasped. Totally different experience.

Sam L. said...

Forget it, Jake; it's Slate-town.

SeanF said...

Etienne: There used to be a British TV program where a Nun toured the art galleries and described the painting that attracted her. Sister Wendy dove right in and after explaining the historical basis, often critiqued the art. People would giggle when she described the lust and sexuality of a painting.

We played Trivial Pursuit at our Christmas party last month, and Sister Wendy was the subject of one of the questions. None of us had ever heard of her before.

Biff said...

Professor: As you contemplate places where you and Meade might consider relocating, perhaps you should search for places that have a sufficient number of docenting opportunities for you.

whitney said...

Totally agree. When I was young I went to DC with my mother and we saw an El Greco exhibit and we got the headphones and it transformed the experience. I always get the headphones or do a tour. More information about anything makes it more interesting.

traditionalguy said...

I haven't been to European Museums, but but the Field Museum in Chicago and the MET in NYC have most of Pharonic Egypt's religious displays on display. You can spend days there. IIR Napoleon was the first Egyptian collector.

Darrell said...

Henry Clay Frick had a foot fetish. See those stains? I bet you can guess how they got there.

Amexpat said...

I've done a lot of guiding over the years, both on a coach travelling through Scandinavia and in museums here in Oslo. When I guide groups in a museum, I always give a brisk tour of the highlights and then free time to explore on their own.

I often have to listen to local guides with the groups I lead in other cities. It's a pleasure to listen to a good guide and hell to listen to a poor guide.

tcrosse said...

Sister Wendy (God Bless Her) could eat an apple through a chain link fence.

Robert Cook said...

"Am I the only one who thinks it's a waste of time to go to art museums? In a museum, even with a guide, you can't really 'see' the painting."

Are you kidding? I went to the comprehensive show of Michelangelo's drawings currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and even though the show was mobbed, I was able to get to within millimeters of the drawings and examine the chalk marks in extreme close up.

I've never been to the Louvre, (or France), but in every museum I've visited in NYC, one can get as close as one likes to the works on display. Much different and better experience than seeing the works reproduced, as they are often bigger (or sometimes smaller) than can be seen in reproduction, and the colors are truer.

I've always liked Francis Bacon's paintings, but when I saw a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago, it was amazing how different(and more powerful) they were in person (as it were) than in reproduction.

robother said...

In India, your experience may differ.

rhhardin said...

A guided tour may be the cheapest way to visit, if you don't mind which hotels you stay at or when. Just don't join the group except for transportation.

Gf and I did that in the 70s.

Unknown said...

People who are too cool, are too cool to hang around with the rubes on a tour. You and your circle are snobs.

Tank said...

@Cook

Agree.

Way different (better) in person.

Lucien said...

My wife and I travel a lot and avoid the guided tour because we have eclectic tastes and prefer to see what interests us rather than do the "mass-produced" thing.

For Japan we made an exception, because unlike most of the world English isn't common there and you really need a translator to survive (parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America can be similar but my wife has the language skills to take care of us there.) In Japan we hired a private interpreter and tour guide, just for the two of us, and therefore did the "guided tour". It was fantastic, our guide was great and we really got a lot of enjoyment out of it, at least as much as our typical unguided tours.

It made us think we should consider a private guide in other areas, even where English was more common. We would still never do the group tour, we prefer personal attention and flexibility. I should add that we have a lot of money, so we can easily bankroll this kind of thing; I don't know how we'd approach it if money was a concern. We probably just wouldn't travel.

Francisco D said...

I spent a fortnight in Paris about 18 years ago. My (ex) wife instead upon various tours. Versailles was a disappointment, but not because of the tour. Chartres was a revelation. I will never forget it.

Others were OK, but you do not need a tour guide for the Louvre. It is truly magnificent and I suspect that a tour guide would lessen rather than enhance the experience. My opinion about London (10 years later) is similar. Explore on your own!

My overall impression about tours is mixed. My recommendation is that you have to take chances in life. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don't.

Dan Ledbetter said...

In case anyone missed it, someone’s got “got a lot of money.” 😂

JML said...

We took a Vacation Bike Tour a few years ago - it was a good mix of individual and group time. We were with my wife's brother and sister and their spouse and sometimes we were in a group and sometimes by ourselves and sometimes massed, and the actual itinerary had plenty of individual time to explore on your own. The group was less than 20 people and we got along fine. The guides were fantastic. I recommend it.

stlcdr said...

Having been a tour guide, as MM said right at the very start, you lie.

Well, not completely. You tell the facts but in a more colorful way. This means glossing it up with a few lies that really don’t mean anything. Facts have a nasty habit of being completely boring.

Balfegor said...

Re: Dan Ledbetter:

Because in all likelihood you could stand in front of each piece of art, google it, and get all the trivia you want about it. Now, of course, if you simply want the social interaction...

The problem is that in any given museum, there's so many pieces that you can't do that for every one. That said, I don't think I've ever done a museum tour, not since I was a schoolboy. I usually just wander around and look for things that look interesting to me. If there's an exhibit with sketches and rough paintings, I almost invariably gravitate to that.

For historical monuments or buildings, though, I do kind of like the tours, if they're reasonably short, less than an hour and a half or so. What I shy away from is the extended multi-day tours. Last year I was taking my parents on holiday, and one option we considered was a multi-day walking tour, but ultimately, we decided against that in favour of a day here and a day trip there, so we had the flexibility to spend as long as we wanted in every location. We were in Japan (like Lucien), but since I speak and read Japanese almost fluently, and both my parents have some proficiency in the language as well, it was a pretty smooth experience. That said, I know there are lots of things I have missed out on because I've not taken any guided tours -- some weekend I'm going to take one of those Hato bus tours of Tokyo. But those are still pretty short.