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A three-hour tour . . .

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Given the number of days and weeks under the bridge since the marathon, I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say that neither Dale nor I had seen the (very small) text in the race registration materials mentioning the very challenging course, or the fact that finishers’ t-shirts boast that it is the “toughest in the North.” Ouch, ouch, ouch. But I did not lie down on the trail and give up. Yay me and thank you to my pacer.

Today, my thoughts rest on some of the other experiences I’ve had in Germany this summer, while traveling with my students. At several museums and sites the language institute or I had requested the services of a tour guide, in English, to share some of the highlights of the site and/or its collection with the students in a more masterful way than I, an interested non-expert, could. After two summers of these trips, I have concluded that a good tour guide is hard to find.

A brief rundown of the types of sites we visited:

The Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin; The Jewish Museum in Berlin, The Stasi Museum in Berlin, Martin Luther’s house in Wittenberg, the city of Wittenberg, the city of Weimar and the Goethe Haus in Weimar, and the Buchenwald Memorial site.

All of these are major tourist (and research) attractions in Germany (albeit for very different audiences) and advertise their thematic, guided tours more or less aggressively. Most of these places, the Stasi Museum being an exception, rely on freelance tour guides who are affiliated with, but not employed by, the city or the museum/institution. I think this results in some pretty spotty standards for guides and those of us using their services roll the dice and take our chances. My students and family have heard my rant about the very-sub-par guide we had at the Jewish Museum and I have already grown tired of telling that sad tale.

Here, though, are my Dos-and-Don’ts of giving group tours:


  • Personalize the tour to the group requesting it. A group of German retirees and a group of American students need and want different things in a tour.
  • Make eye contact with your group and engage with them as a person.
  • Convey your passion/interest in the place or institution you are introducing.
  • Speak intelligibly for your audience.
  • KNOW YOUR FACTS. And do not spread your own personal interpretation of history as fact. (I’m looking at you, Buchenwald tour guide who said “no one entered the SS intending to kill people.”)


  • Direct your erudite comments to the group leader, attempting to impress.
  • Give the same tour each and every time. You will wind up sounding like a bored church-goer saying the rosary.
  • Play the “I know something you don’t know” or “fishing” game with your group, in a lame attempt to create some sort of group pedagogical vibe. Asking questions that have only one answer, or test the group’s knowledge of your area of specialty, are insulting and make you look vain and annoying.
  • Name drop, insert jargon, or otherwise imply that you and the group are part of some inner circle to which, in reality, only you belong. Again: insulting.
  • Bring your own perverted fantasies of historical figures’ sexual proclivities into the tour experience (fortunately, here I’m cribbing a colleague’s horrible tour experience last summer).
  • Tell the group how a given installation/monument/artwork will make them feel, and then double-check afterwards to make sure they felt the “right” emotion.

Let it be stated here and know that every single tour guide I have ever had at the Stasi Museum, in over four visits to the place, has been excellent and interested and appropriate and interesting and on and on. They rock. Wittenberg also gets above-average grades all the way around. Perhaps it is telling that the sites with the most historical baggage involved–The Jewish Museum and the Buchenwald Memorial–have had the spottiest tour guides. Complex narratives and complex personal and family histories perhaps conspire to make for uncomfortable group experiences?


Written by Jennifer

July 30, 2010 at 11:19 am

Posted in German

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