Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Training, testing, and licensing tour guides: Whose history is it, anyway?

January 28, 2011 by Mark Kehres


To test, or not to test? At the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, that question has once again appeared in regards to the city’s thriving tour guide industry. A case challenging a city law which requires tour guides to pass an examination about their subject matter in order to be licensed to give tours was dismissed in 2009, based on the fact that Philadelphia lacked the funds to enforce it.

Nevertheless, a group of city tour guides has challenged the law again, seeking clarification on a Constitutional level. Similar laws already exist in New York, New Orleans, and other historic locations, but here in Philadelphia the issue has turned into a free-speech showdown.

The city argues that tourists need to know that their tour guides know what they’re talking about. The guides insist that their First Amendment rights are being violated (as tour guides in other cities have also done).

Ultimately, while they may enjoy receiving a bit of local flavor, tourists who choose to take a trip around Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood with a friendly horse-and-carriage driver have a reasonable expectation that the information they’re hearing is accurate.

Testing our tour guides

So how do those of us who work in public history find the balance between free expression and historical rigor? As Public Programs Trainer at the National Constitution Center, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how our staff deals with our material. Our educators are a pretty diverse bunch—young, old, retired, students, and about every background and profession you can imagine. And we each approach the material a little bit differently.

Visitors expect a high level of accuracy, and we need to make sure that our staff members have their facts straight.

One of the points we emphasize to our staff is that we’re all individuals, and each of us should bring our own unique perspective and life-experience to each interaction with a visitor.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can make things up. Especially in museums, visitors expect a high level of accuracy, and we need to make sure that our staff members have their facts straight.

To combine these two goals of individual expression and factual accuracy, we train our staff in three ways: direct training sessions, reading materials, and shadowing fellow staff members. In these ways, staff members receive the fundamental message and the factual material of the Center, while still being able to see how it can be delivered in unique ways. This allows our staff members to personalize their conversations with visitors by using their own backgrounds and interests, ensuring that the facts and the message of the Center are being delivered in an accurate and engaging way.

The issue of government-mandated exams for tour guides raises some interesting questions about free speech. Testing advocates point to licensing requirements in other fields, such as barbering, saying that the public is served best when service-providers are able to demonstrate a minimal level of competency.

Testing opponents see it otherwise. They agree that tour guides should be knowledgeable, but they argue that people have the power to decide whom they will listen to; government should not decide who is allowed to speak.

Here at the Center our training balances the accuracy of our presentations with the individuality of our knowledgeable staff.

Photo credit: Flickr user Tobyotter

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