J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Philadelphia Moves to License Historic Tour Guides

On 28 Aug 2007, the Christian Science Monitor reported on a bill “to educate, test, and license guides who offer tours for money on public property in Philadelphia”:

If Ron Avery has his way, Philadelphia tour guides will stop telling you things that will make you flunk your history test.

They’ll stop saying that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln once dined together. Or that Ben Franklin had not one, but 69, illegitimate children. That basement kitchens had outdoor exits so as to spare the furniture should the cook’s skirts catch fire. Or that a house would be left to burn if it didn’t display an insurance company fire mark.

Mr. Avery, a part-time tour guide and retired reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, is out to halt what he sees as “nonsense” parading as history among those paid handsomely to tutor tourists. He compiled a list of 80 inaccuracies he has heard–or heard of–while traveling incognito over the years on tourist trolleys, double-decker buses, and horse-drawn carriages in this most historic of American cities...
(“Most historic”? Saint Augustine was an organized settlement for over fifty years before Europeans settled in either Philadelphia or Boston. But I digress.)

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation favored the legislation. Though some tour guides complained that this would produce another layer of bureaucracy, the city council and mayor approved the bill, and it became law in April, to take effect on 13 October.

On 13 May, Amy Chen of Newsweek filled in the details:
Once the program is running in little more than a year from now, the city’s tourism website gophila.com plans to list the companies with certified guides.

Philly’s exam, which will cost $25, hasn’t been developed yet. It will be written by a group of tour operators, historians, and university professors.

After two years, the City Council plans to review the program and will likely expand it beyond the historic district.
That article added, “Philadelphia isn’t the first city to require that its tour guides be licensed. Charleston, New Orleans, New York City, Savannah, and Washington, D.C.,—and cities overseas, such as Rome—already license their tour guides.” Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the federal government has licensed guides for the Gettysburg battlefield since 1915; each must pass a tough examination process.

TOMORROW: The politicized pushback.


Anonymous said...

Don't know if licensing is necessarily the way to go, but I'm pretty much in favor of anything that will limit tour guides from spewing out crap. So many tour guides rely on cute stories in places of historical fact. A red flag goes up anytime I hear anything about "a tax on rooms/windows in houses" or "people were (significantly) shorter back then".I wonder how this compares to the Blue Badge guides in London? I wonder now that I've come down in favor of licensing if I would pass the test for the tours I lead in Boston? :)

Anonymous said...

As a guide myself, I also feel as if there needs to be some kind of control over the things other people say and do in the name of tour-guiding. Glad to know Philly is moving towards order and reason.

In my estimation the trolley drivers and Duck Boat conductors are the worst offenders in Boston, although I've also heard some pretty amazing things said on walking tours as well. (I usually only attend these when I have guests who insist, because I just end up with teeth marks on my tongue...)

Boston guides *used* to be licensed until the mid-70s, I've heard, and there was a group of Boston guides (that used to meet each year at the end of the season for a party; I've lost the emails I used to get from them) who were working to try to get licensing reinstated.

They said that (the now defunct? or severely reduced) Grey Line Tours used to offer a course for any guides who wanted to take it, that served as preparation for the test as well. Something like that would be a useful requirement in the Boston/Cambridge area, too.

Another issue for guides is behavior. I've had people lead their tours right through the middle of mine, put their hands on gravestones (a big no-no, the oils on your hands are very bad for the stones) and then yell at me when I quietly suggested in an aside that it was inappropriate to do so.

Most recently, too, in Harvard Square, there are a bunch of irreverent (that alone, I could stand) and rude (that, I can't stand) promoters for the "Unauthorized Tour of Harvard" that are not only brash and loud (that, too might be supportable alone) but wide-ranging in the statements they make and the way the swoop in front of other guides in the Discovery Kiosk area, poaching potential attendees to tours that are quieter, more reasonable and more well-considered.

They're very provocative and are making people irate; one fellow last weekend said, angrily, when I asked him if he were interested in the church history tour I was preparing to offer, "I've been pitched to already, leave me alone." (Mistress Elizabeth observed that, pitched, or not, he appeared to be now standing upright, which mollified him somewhat...)

While there is definitely a dearth of free maps available when the Discovery Kiosk is closed (and the volunteers in there do yeomanly work, by the way!) the "Unauthrorized" folks are rapacious in their insistence on pushing free maps under peoples' noses and then trying to sign them up for the next tour.

Whatever virtues capitalism might have, rudeness doesn't have to be one of them, and cutthroat competition needs to be curbed more than a little bit. I haven't had time (or a strong enough desire) yet to take one of their tours, but I've heard them yelling about the "Greeeaattt history lesson you're about to receive" in the Yard, which I would think Yard residents (yes, people live in those dorms all year 'round...) would resent as well.

I'd be glad to take (or help construct) a guide's test in this area. It's said that the Greater Boston Tourism bureau put the damper on it because it was seen as constraining business. But that suggests that one has to be rude, ignorant and loud to offer a successful tour, and I don't think that's really the case...

Anonymous said...

Oh, actually, I meant to note--some things guides say ARE correct, by the way...people were in fact significantly shorter several centuries ago, mostly due to diet.

Not only shorter beds and clothes, but gravesites confirm this...Old Cambridge has many head-and footstone groupings that show adults to have been much smaller than the 6-foot and greater distance between them we would now require if we still used footstones.

Dunno about window taxes, but there may be some who do...

J. L. Bell said...

On the question of height, I think it depends on what one infers from “significantly.” Yes, it’s clear from skeletons and military records that the average adult was shorter in eighteenth-century America than today (and even shorter in eighteenth-century Europe).

On the other hand, the difference is a matter of a couple of inches. Visiting the eighteenth century would not feel like dropping into Munchkinland.

And that height difference is too small to be the reason why so many of the beds and garments we see in museums look small. People didn’t sleep fully prone, and there are reasons to expect clothes on the small side to be preserved while larger garments would be cut up and refashioned.

Anonymous said...

If the requirements to provied more correct history knowledge came from the guide's own professionalism or market needs from tourists, I think there won't be such big noises on this issue.