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Tour, Tour guide

March 5, 2017

“I see you’re looking at the map. Would you care to join the tour? It’s free!”

She was probably in her 60s, dressed immaculately in perfectly tailored clothes, a woollen scarf draped over her shoulders. She exuded wealth and privilege. My tour guide for the day.

She was wearing a volunteer badge.

Miriam Lemer

Volunteer

Expiry date 31/12/2017

Expiry date? What an odd choice of language to use on a personal piece of identification.! Is that how the V&A see their volunteers? As commodities with a shelf life?

And so, I realised that the tour in itself is an object. And to the V&A, so are its volunteers.

Our guide spoke very eloquently about a select few objects and areas in the museum for one hour.

For one hour, I studied her.

What was her background, I wondered? Where had she come from? Where was she manufactured?

She had a background in history and antiques. She had been a volunteer for over 10 years.

She told me that the V&A used to provide training to the tour guides but these days, to become a tour guide you have to do at least six months of ‘service’ before going on to ‘graduate’ to tour guide status.

All the front of house staff are actually unpaid volunteers.

Exploitation in the name of opportunity? She thought so.

Many people who choose to take a guided tour may be visiting the V&A for the first time ever. So who designs the tours? Who curates this very direct shaping of visitor opinion?

I was surprised to hear that the volunteer tour guides are allowed to choose their own routes. But of course, it isn’t completely autonomous. They have to visit a selection of galleries and areas, as set by the museum.

However, the institution has no control over what Miriam really says. How do we know what she says is true? How can we trust the history and narrative we are consuming? Anybody can become a tour guide, in theory.

“That certainly was not true.”

“Actually that’s not entirely true.”

“I cannot substantiate what I’m saying. Nobody can.”

Miriam

The information we hear on a tour is assumed to be more insightful than simply walking round the museum alone and reading descriptions.

We trust that the figure of authority before us is speaking the truth. The V&A trust their volunteer tour guides to have a rehearsed and varied route through the museum, which will inform visitors of the great wealth of their collection.

But how can we trust the validity of what we are fed?

The V&A’s widespread use of volunteer labour prompts us to question the tour guide as an object of factual information. In some ways, the V&A is empowering the public by allowing them to share their own version of the museum with the world. Yet being able to afford to provide your labour for no money over a prolonged period of time is exploitative and exclusive, leaving only those who can afford it able perform the role of a tour guide.

Maybe that’s what they want.

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