Becoming a Virtual Historical Tour Guide: Where to Start

Eleanor Janega

Historical tours have long been a mainstay of popular history. In central London, for example, on any given day one can witness flocks of tourists following their intrepid guides – umbrellas aloft – down footpaths too narrow to accommodate them all. In almost every city, fleets of buses compete for customers, promising interested parties both a lift and an audio tour of local historical sites of interest, no walking required. With the expansion of a technologically literate general population, and a proliferation of smart tech, a new opportunity has arisen for those interested in historical tourism – virtual tours.

Virtual tours have a number of advantages for audiences. Their physical presence in an area isn’t required, and in some cases their attendance at a particular time is not either. They need only access an app, or a group chat, and they are able to learn about a particular place while having a look at it digitally.

Virtual tours also have some distinct advantages for those interested in giving tours. Historians who are enthusiastic to share their knowledge with others can do so without the inconveniences of blocking thoroughfares and holding umbrellas. Similarly, much like their audiences, they need not be in the location at a given time. Instead they can pre-record tours, or lead them from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

There are currently two larger subsets of virtual tours which historians can take part in: pre-recorded, and ‘live’. Within these, there are two further distinct subsets: live streams and recordings in situ at a historical site, or recordings or ‘live’ tours conducted remotely.

Pre-recorded Tours

Pre-recorded tours have the benefit of being relatively free of administration or timing requirements. Guides can approach them as a ‘one and done’ piece of work. They are recorded and uploaded to whichever platform the guide uses to share their work, and they need not necessarily think of them again. Meanwhile, interested audiences can access the tours into perpetuity at a any suitable time.

Figure 1. ‘Place of Execution, Smithfield’ from John Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, vol. 2, (1865), p. 384.

A key advantage to pre-recorded tours is that they also allow for guides to curate tours in cities where the sites in question are far from each other physically, but linked thematically. If one wished, for example, to discuss the execution ground in London at the Smithfields, followed by the Tyburn tree, their audiences can follow smoothly from point to point using videos, rather than having to make what could otherwise be a 40 minute trip.

The pre-recorded remote tour allows for the easiest possible experience for guides who cannot (or do not wish to) access the location that they are discussing. It also has the distinct advantage for those who would prefer to work from a script, as opposed to off the cuff. Guides can put together a short discussion (generally two to five minutes is sufficient for most audiences) of the place that they are describing. This can then be layered over still images of the place in question to create a video. This approach requires slightly more technical buy-in from the tour guide, in that they need to produce a video. However, this is easily done in most editing software, or even on, for example, YouTube.

Slightly easier in terms of technical know-how, but requiring an actual presence (if only once) from tour guides are pre-recorded videos. In these instances, tour guides need really only a good enough quality microphone, which most smartphones possess or which can be easily purchased, and a device with video functions. This method allows for slightly more human interaction on the part of the guide: guides can choose to have their faces appear if they wish, in order to foster a personal connection with viewers.

One potential downside of this approach, however, is that the notes for a script or speech can be more difficult to juggle with recording equipment. The approach, therefore, slightly favours those who can work off the cuff, from bullet points, or from memory. It similarly allows guides to record on sites which are distant from each other, although the travelling still needs to be done off-camera by the guide themselves.

“Live” tours

Live tours have essentially the same possibilities and considerations as pre-recorded tours, but require in both cases, a mutually-convenient way to share streams with audiences. In general, live tours pose an administrative problem, because audiences and guides need to agree to a particular time for the tour to take place. In general, it is best for guides to set this time, but it would theoretically be possible to offer audiences a range of possibilities using polling software.

Figure 2. Commemorative plaque at the site of Tyburn Tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Remote tours conducted live require slightly more technological buy-in from both parties. Guides should in most cases, pre-circulate links to images of the sites that the group will be visiting. A useful tool for this is Google Street view. Otherwise, guides may wish to use a screen-sharing service, where they can bring up their own images (indeed even a PowerPoint presentation may work in such cases) as they speak.

The benefits to this method are that guides can pre-prepare their talks if they so wish, and audience members can ask questions directly of the guides. This gives a more personalised feel to an almost totally hypothetical tour. As with pre-recorded tours, remote tours also allow guides to present geographically distant, but thematically linked, tours without the hassle of travel. 

It would also be possible to arrange remote tours for use within classrooms. Lessons can be centred around a tour of various sites and then presented via projection. In this case, it benefits guides to use Street View rather than a PowerPoint presentation in order to make the distinction between the experience as a tour, rather than as a standard lecture. This approach has the benefit of providing students with more of a connection to the physical and geographical realities of a location.

The alternative for live tours is to conduct them in person from the locations in question. For this, tour guides need only to agree on a time with audiences, and have a form of software that allows them to connect at the same time together. This can be accomplished via several platforms including Google Hangouts, or Skype, to name just two. Guides wishing to undertake a live tour must be comfortable speaking off the cuff, and indeed into a phone in public for long lengths of time. They also need to be able to move physically between spaces, and so the lengths of travel time must be taken into account.

The benefits of virual live tours in situ include the ability to show a tangible physical connection between the areas shown, and an ability to respond to audience questions about various details live. If someone wishes to see a particular feature of a building, for example, it is possible to simply walk up to it. Travel time between areas can also be used to answer audience questions as the guides walk.

Overall, there are massive benefits to virtual tours for historians, and particularly those historians interested in topics such as space, the built environment, or psychogeography. They also provide a clear opportunity to connect with audiences interested in history, but less so in reading, and who may be unable to attend a historical tour in person. Virtual tours provide historians with an exciting new option for sharing their work beyond traditional academic audiences, and as software becomes more accessible and proliferates, these opportunities should continue to grow as well.

Dr Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian, specialising in sexuality, apocalypticism, propaganda, and the urban experience. She focuses on public history with non-expert audiences, and teaches at the London School of Economics. Her upcoming The Middle Ages: A Graphic History will be out next year with Icon Publishing. Eleanor’s tours of Medieval London can be accessed here.

Figure 1 is understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 2 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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