Saturday, 20 July 2013

The California State Railroad Museum Tour

So here's another way of taking a guided tour... on Youtube. Yes, there is a wealth of guided tours captured for posterity and available online. Today I took the California State Railroad Museum Guided Tour and if you click on the link you can too. 

It reminded me at first of the Henry VIII Tour of Portsmouth I covered recently in that it was given by an older gentleman who spends the first 10 minutes of the tour giving a history lesson which makes little or no reference to the objects or architecture around him. An important difference however is that this man in dressed in costume and this somehow gives him more of a pass.   

The structure of the tour is basically chronological beginning with the construction of the railroads and finishing with the modern trains. This is more or less the way the museum itself is laid out so once he starts to move it flows more easily. From time to time he gives demonstrations of the actions of railroad workers such as at this point where he shows what brake men had to do in order to stop a train. He doesn't interact with any of the engines or objects however, he stands in front of them and talks about them. The tour just tells the story of the artefacts, if you want to look more closely you do so when the tour is over. It is therefore an introduction to the collection, a description of some things that you should look out for when you go round later by yourself. In this sense, it is a tour of a tour. 

A special quality to this tour is that the guide is both a bit forgetful and quite charming at the same time. He finds a good way to perform himself, maybe not dissimilar to how former governor of California Ronald Reagan managed to do, so that you can accept the slips, detours and late additions to the script quite easily. The guide does not appear to be troubled by these so you the listener can also settle into this more relaxed, homespun manner which, when contrasted to the in your face hard sell manner of presentation or the doublespeak of the political class, goes down a lot more easily.

A further thing I notice about him being older is that this makes him quite suitable for talking about old technology. Even though he was not even born when the first steam trains were making their way across North America, he is still closer to that time period than I am. Compare for example if a very knowledgable 17-year old were to give the same tour, the effect would be completely different. The material would simply sound very alien coming out his mouth, he would sound like a good student reciting his homework. By having an older guide who appears to be more connected to history than most of the listeners simply by virtue of the fact he is older than them, he is conferred with a degree of respect when it comes to talking about things that happened in the past.

With this tour over it leaves plenty of scope for other virtual tours. I heard about people doing online pilgrimage (e-hajj) and I see tours of the Tower of London, Wimbledon Tennis Club and The Space Station waiting for me, amongst many other. I will for now however get back to terra firma and have two short tours awaiting me tomorrow.   

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Dalston Conservation Tour: a tour with two guides

This was a free guided-tour that was offered as part of Dalston People's Festival. It was advertised in this way: 

Respecting our heritage. Guided walk and discussion. Ray Blackburn of Dalston Conservation Area Advisory Committee will talk us through the history and merit of buildings we take for granted, the recent Design for London, Dalston Heritage Scoping Report and the work of the CAAC to protect that heritage and implement the report’s recommendations. How can we protect our history and keep Dalston unique?

About 15 of us assembled outside the new library at 6.30PM and while waiting for latecomers some of the characters of the walk became more evident. Ray our tall, knowledgable guide took a supporting position while the man on the right outlined some of the other tours that would feature in the festival and the objective of using the event to make proposals to the council. Another man identified himself as being part of the council but attending in an unofficial capacity, while Vincent from the planning department seemed to be mentioned in his absence more than once. I realised that this was not only an architectural tour but also one deeply involved in local politics. 

Our guide Ray got going by introducing the tour which worked on the (largely correct) assumption that  we were interested and even engaged citizens and definitely not tourists. He then explained that the tour would focus on what could be seen rather than telling us about what used to be there, as many historical tours do. He did however make one exception, mentioning the demolished station and how architectural features from it that could have been preserved were lost. He did this in order to introduce the question, "what should be done with architectural fragments?"  

We moved on to the old library, a rather undistinguished construction where we were told about its history and present use and about its architectural features. This was to set the tone for much of what followed: description of the building with particular attention to architecture followed by a question about conservation principles. The somewhat dull and unloved ex-library was described as a 'good example' of post-war modernist public architecture and important to preserve in order to be able to tell the story of Dalston from an architectural point of view. This is an interesting argument and one that appeals more to professionals in the architectural field; that things can be mundane even ugly yet of value to the narrative of the space.

Here we came to Kinetica the new 14-floor tower block that can be seen in the background. The question that he got to was how do these significantly taller buildings effect the appearance of the area that was previously built to just 3 or 4 floors. This format of beginning with an architectural description and using it as a lead in for a question of principal was his way to connect his expertise in architetural history and guiding with the political objectives of the tour's organisers. Although it was generally very clear what the answer should be, such as this tower is too tall, it was a soft sell that allowed the listeners space to consider it as a question. On balance this was quite a good approach as an overtly partisan tour would have probably turned some people off. Still, it was not difficult to read between the lines, what was offered were not genuine planning dilemmas, this was quietly working at convincing you of the value of increased conservation.  

Speaking of quiet, Dalston Lane was anything but. There was a continual stream of buses passing back and forth which proved a problem for our quietly spoken guide. We had to crowd close to hear him but inevitably things got lost in the hectic hum of engines, steel and rubber on asphalt.   

With our discussion of architecture it was inevitable we'd take in Dalston House, though greater attention was given to the Pentecostal church behind it and the issue of architectural continuity in street regeneration.

Dalston being Dalston there was a bit of action with the police so we had to find a quiet spot and here we learnt about the past of the Chinese restaurant Shanghai. Here the Dalston Heritage Scoping Report was circulated, a thick, well researched document on local architectural history. It was roundly praised and we admired the restaurant's former pie and mash exterior. 

Throughout the tour there had been a gentle tension between Ray, our guide, and the man who had organised the events on a wider level. He often added details to the commentary and particularly talked about the processes and politics of conservation. He wore his activist colours very overtly and was looking to come away with an action plan and recommendations while our guide (who really is a professional guide in his daily life) was more focussed on the architecture itself and on conservation principles. It is this double interest that gave the tour its unique flavour, a split focus that was quite literally personified. 

At the end of tour we were invited to the pub where a room was reserved for us and where the political side of the tour now took the dominant role. Most of those taking the took attended and gave their thoughts and suggestions on how to improve the conservation of Dalston. We got into the local politics more directly yet at the same time there was also a chance to meet some of the others taking the tours who included Hackney Tours guide Simon, who told me about the book, The Tour Guide a study of New York City tour guides that sounds very interesting and about his own tours that will, I hope, find their way onto this blog in the not too distant future.  

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Henry VIII Tour: how to make history die

I learnt about The Henry VIII Tour when looking online for guided tours of Portsmouth and found that the city council arranges tours every two weeks on Sunday afternoons around different topics. This weekend it was Henry VIII's turn.

The tour began with us assembling and paying for tickets. Many of us had already bought them in advance through the City Museum and D Day Museum, while one or two people bought them on the spot from the guide himself. It cost just £3 so was inexpensive and there were about 20 of us taking it all in all.  

The tour began with a history lesson. The guide read from notes and freely acknowledged the researchers who had done the bulk of the research on this topic some 30 to 40 years ago by consulting original documents from the time of Henry VIII, that is to say from the early 16th Century. The tour was presented as a history of the king's relationship with Portsmouth and it was told chronologically starting with the situation that he inherited from his father. 

As the first part of this story related to the size and nature of the British fleet the guide produced a book that had some illustrations of warships so that his talk had some images to relate to. It was unfortunate that the style of illustrations was a little like those in a children's book. This older man showing us childish pictures of warships was slightly ridiculous but also charming. 

After some time introducing the topic we moved from the Square Tower to the beach. The guide again read from his his notes and then added some observations of his own to them. This was to be the general format that the rest of the tour settled into. 

Something that was quite striking was that the actual spaces we passed through were strangely absent in the tour. By that I mean we saw many things that could have been brought into the frame of the tour if the tour was about the real geography of the location. I'm thinking, for example, about the Solent Guild of Woodcarvers who we passed besides and who were producing carvings with medieval designs. This made me see how this tour was developed as a text that served to impart historical research and had not been written in situ developing the historical information from what was already there on the ground. 

We came to the marina and here the subject matter turned to beer. At this point I realised there was another organising system to this tour, material had been put together according to topic as well as according to chronology. It had been written in such a way that these two orders of classification interrupted one another as little as possible but it was inevitable that within each topic there were some chronologies of their own. This meant that these two orders sometimes pulled in separate directions, added to which the order of the space imposed a quite separate logic again. The route we walked neither followed the Henry VIII chronology precisely nor did it wholly follow the thematic logic either. This meant that the guide was often left saying, "anyway..." and then throwing in some observations of his own, which at times added a new order of its own.   

We stopped at two churches and I learnt one rather interesting fact that was new to me. The city of Portsmouth was excommunicated for over 50 years following a visiting bishop being killed by an angry mob who demanded to be paid their wages. Add to this another little known story I heard about Queen Victoria who, when she visited the city was so upset by the population's indifferent reception that she had a new train line built so she could avoid the city and reach her Isle of Wight residence via a Gosport quayside instead. There is something of this unruly, iconoclastic history of the city that lives on today.

The structural problems of the Henry VIII tour notwithstanding, it was interesting to see a genuine local history tour given by a blue badge guide. I now realise that my approach to tours comes from a  completely different perspective: I prioritise form, structure and live presence whereas this tour was all about the content.

As well as this tour being useful general research on tours I took it to research the tours of Portsmouth as I would like to do something local. I now realise however that the city would be even more challenging than Stuttgart as there are very few tours on offer and not such a great a volume of tourists either. This was abundantly clear from the vacancies sign displayed outside this guest house near the sea front. A mid-summer weekend in which the city was bathed in warm sunlight and they still had vacancies. Well, it is either that the tourists are not coming in great numbers or, that this guest house "ALBATROSS" has chosen a particularly bad name for their establishment, the bird being a byword for a burden or curse.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Armed Forces Day Tour: a Portsmouth Dockyard ship tour

I took a tour around Portsmouth Dockyard on Armed Forces Day at the weekend. And if you are wondering what that is, Armed Forces Day is a recent invention, a nationwide event that has been running since 2009. The organisers describe it as, 

an opportunity to do two things. Firstly, to raise public awareness of the contribution made to our country by those who serve and have served in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, Secondly, it gives the nation an opportunity to Show Your Support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community: from currently serving troops to Service families and from veterans to cadets.

I don't know if that means that simply by going along to the dockyard I was showing my support, but one way or another I was interested to see what Armed Forces Day looked like and how it functioned as a tour.

Upon entering the dockyard sailor/guides attempt to get you to buy tickets for the pay-to-see attractions like HMS Victory or The Mary Rose Museum but, leaving these historic ships aside, I headed to the contemporary warships which, conveniently enough, were free to view. There were two and it was HMS Defender that I settled upon. You first start the ship's tour on the quayside with the queue that snakes its way between the metal barriers 

Approaching the front of the queue you get your first human contact. A sailor welcomes you and offers a brief introduction to the tour, "welcome to HMS Defender, always face the ladders when going up and down them (people didn't), don't go off the designated route, careful of the the yellow and black high voltage areas, keep children under control, no photographs in the command room, your bags may be searched and enjoy your tour!" 

The line then juddered forwards, went up the gangplank and we were onboard ship. The majority of the time we, the visitors, filed through the corridors of the ship on our own, going through metal hatches and wondering what the different tubes were for. 

Every now and then we came across the sailor/guides who were dotted around at regular intervals standing by their equipment and offering explanations of how it worked. Here is a man showing the fire extinguishers. 

And here is another showing off the guns. The semi-automatic rifles were very popular with the children, there was always a queue to get to fire them. Fortunately they were not loaded! Behind you can also see a girl trying on body armour and a helmet while raising a gun. Final thing to mention is the boy's cap. The Armed Forces day seemed to be a bit of a 'flag fest'. I noticed on the day's official website they were even selling flags and encouraging people to set up their own events to celebrate the armed forces in their area. 

I am in fact somewhat familiar with this type of tour from back when I was growing up. Similar events were held in the 70s and 80s called 'Navy Days'. These offered ship tours, activities like bomb defusing and entertainment like military bands. In the past recruiting was also quite a prominent feature; these days they are not quite so hungry for new sailors. The function of the day has changed somewhat, and seemed to me to be more about creating positive PR for the military so that the country as a whole accepts the armed forces' disproportionately large size (and with that expense) and its continued deployment in Afghanistan and worldwide. 

We got to see many corners of this modern 2009 destroyer and could contrast it with older warships such as HMS Victory that can be seen in the distance. I read that the HMS Victory tour operates on a similar basis to this one, namely you follow the tour path yourself and dotted around the vessel are sailor/guides who will explain to you different aspects of the ship. This really seems to be the military's way of offering tours: rather than the guide following you and explaining everything you get to hear from a number of sailor/guides about each of their specific roles such as communications officer, helicopter pilot etc, and their associated area's of the ship. 

Getting off HMS Defender I had a cup of instant coffee in the visitor tent erected near the ship. WW2 music and dances took place just outside and within we had plenty of red, white and blue and pictures of smiling soldiers being decent chaps. It was really a very nationalistic event and I noticed it was approvingly reported on the national news later in the evening.

On leaving the dockyard I noticed a sea vessel far more my style: this sadly neglected fiber-glass boat sitting on the quayside that the owner had tried in vain to sell and was now offering for free. It looked OK to me, it just needed a motor to stick in the back and then you could be off for a tour of Portsmouth Harbour!