Performance Archaeology & The Art of Tourguiding

Here are my views on presenting the past, from slightly different aspects twenty years apart.


Performance Archaeology: More than just Historical Re-enactment (Y. Aburrow & N. Hanks, 1999)


Umberto Eco – [criticism of the Museum of New York] “…the designers want the visitor to feel an atmosphere and to plunge into the past without becoming a philologist or archaeologist…”
~ from Travels in Hyper-Reality


Re-enactment involves portraying individuals of a specific period. A snap shot of life in the past. Though this makes for good photography, its realistic appearance hides the degree of invention going on, when it moves from generic period activity to specific personalities. It has to choose which view of the past to portray. All re-enactment involves some assumptions and inventions to fill the gaps (we don’t know what they sounded like), but these inner workings are hidden from the public. This approach can also have a problem with modern anachronisms. So naturalistic dialogue has to contain explanation and context for the audience, but it must also “appear” real. The vehicle of a character can restrict the width of the information to be communicated. The re-enactment can be so centre stage, with its colour and drama, that it replaces the experience of the site. The artifice is in danger of supplanting what it seeks to portray.


Audiences are also uncomfortable, not knowing how to behave in this unusual inter-personal context; being with actors in character. For example, on “Murder Mystery Weekends” actors have observed that up to a third of their audience never engages with them. They only giggle from a distance, which is a sure sign of their discomfort with the situation, even after being with the performers for an entire weekend.


Performance Archaeology by Longshanks & Talesman;
“Performance” – it is obviously modern people wearing hats, using props & explaining things.
“Archaeology” – it is based on objects and places, that make a probable picture of the people of the past.


Moments of re-enactment serve the exposition of the site, rather than being the boundary within which exposition takes place. The performers never become the character. They are obviously performing, offering a variety of versions of the past for consideration. Longshanks; the more practical and contextual approach, and The Travelling Talesman; the more emotional and romantic. They creatively complement or contradict, making a dynamic structure. They are clearly distinguished by one being in period costume, while the other is in modern dress with a clipboard. From this clipboard “quotes and facts” are obviously read, thus clearly distinguishing them as such. Longshanks & Talesman provide an interface of imagination and interpretation, with the site, opening up possibilities, not dictating a single perspective. But always immediate (“this is where it happened”).


The performance is site specific rather than character specific. This is a genuine experience and hence more exciting than “meeting people from the past” because it engages directly with the audience. This style of performance can zoom in on significant details (objects), and step back to give background context. Footnotes, such as explaining terms, can be easily dropped in. All flows from one to another as easily as natural conversation. It is “theatricised” conversation. And like conversation it is not specifically scripted throughout, and so remains fresh and spontaneous (last minute alterations are also possible).




Performance Archaeology is more flexible than re-enactment for delivering the facts of the site, as whichever medium is most suitable to each point can be used:-

  • Poetry
  • Storytelling
  • Dramatic sketches
  • Document readings
  • Music
  • Puppets
  • Historical background
  • Diagrams
  • Involvement in question & answer
  • Object handling (reconstructions / originals)
  • Involvement in physical reconstruction
  • Using the location

Referencing to other activities / materials on the site


This flexible style also allows easy insertion of “plugs” for ideas, events, or products that require promotion.


This way of working thrives on complex multi-period sites. Ambiguity and uncertainty are an advantage as the audience can fill the gaps or make up their own minds. It can also get them to think, make connections with what they know, and references can be made to popular culture (popular misconceptions can be corrected on the way).




The performers are one step away from the material. So they are sharing it with the audience, not performing at them. They bond with the audience, putting them at their ease by making eye contact, (only some of their time is spent in eye to eye dialogue with each other) and using a conversational style. The audience are gently invited to take part in the physical reconstructions (entire audience becomes walls of lost building), to help hold large props, or offer interpretations. Within a short time the shared theatrical-informality is established and, as in a conversation, people chip-in with their own knowledge and experience.


The audience is periodically moved about the site, promenade style, which does three things. Firstly, it avoids the distracting physical discomfort of standing still for a long period. Secondly, it puts the location centre stage, it is not merely a backdrop. The performers continually direct attention away from themselves, and towards the site and its objects. Thirdly, as with the traditional storyteller’s “mind-theatre”, the spatial differentiation of ideas will fix them in the minds of the audience. They will leave with more than pictures.


Bertolt Brecht – “He behaves naturally as a demonstrator, and he lets the subject of the demonstration behave naturally too. He never forgets, nor does he allow to be forgotten, that he is not the subject but the demonstrator. That is to say, what the audience sees is not a fusion between demonstrator and subject,….such as the orthodox theatre puts before us in its productions [Stanislavsky]. The feelings and opinions of demonstrator and demonstrated are not merged into one.”


“The object of this “effect” is to allow the spectator to criticise constructively….”
~ from The Street Scene. A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre


The Art of Tourguiding. (N. Hanks, 2018)


This was written 20 years after the above ‘Performance Archaeology’ article. It gathers together thoughts and tips from a quarter of a century of guiding people around the history, archaeology and legends of landscapes rural and urban. (These are the notes that support my ‘meta-tour’ that I run for university students. I coined the phrase meta-tour as it is both an historic tour of Bristol and about how to do a tour at the same time).




THE PLACE IS THE STAR. It should be the centre of attention rather than you or the material you are presenting. You can even give it a round of applause at the end of the tour if you like. You are the guide to it; leading the way through the geography of the route and the chronology of the material. Pointing out the important and the quirky, but also guiding them safely away from hazards.


WHATEVER WORKS. In many respects there is really no right or wrong way to do a tour. The test for any idea is ‘does it work?’. Does it work for this material? Does it work for this audience? Does it work for this presenter?


PRACTICE. The more you do guided walks the better you will get. Actually, doing it for a real audience is the only real way to get better at it. Of course, practicing before a walk by yourself will help the material settle in to your memory, and get you off simply reading out your notes.


DEVELOP YOUR OWN STYLE. We all have our own way of presenting. Don’t try to copy other guides styles (but do study their technique). As you do more events you will get more comfortable talking to people and your own style will emerge naturally. It will be a lot like your ordinary way of talking to anyone, just a bit more colourful and rehearsed.


PITCH IT AT THE RIGHT LEVEL. How you present the material, and what material you include will be different for different audiences. Visitors might need famous names, while local residents will like obscure details. Experts will know all the technical jargon, students will want it explained, but the general public can live without it. The level of familiarity your audience has with a site or a time period will change what material you include.


ALWAYS RE-CHECK THE ROUTE. Circumstances may have changed since you were last there. Paths do get blocked. Views of sites can be obstructed. Even then the unexpected will happen sometimes so be prepared to drop material, even if it is good, if you can’t get to the location for it. Also try and have some spare general supporting material to fill-in when needed or as a back up to questions that might be asked, such as bits of biography of people mentioned on route.


THEY ARE IN YOUR HANDS. Check the accessibility of route, noting any steps, stiles, gates and steep gradients. Brief the audience on route issues before the day, so individuals can work out if it is suitable for them. Also brief them again on the day as a reminder, and for those who didn’t read it or expect to be dragged along to your event. You have a duty of care to the group you are leading, in particular, if they are all strangers to each other. If the group arrives with its own leader, that does take the pressure off you to some extent. Some organisations require you to have Public Liability Insurance up to a particular amount, others may provide cover to you from theirs. (An unexpected lightning storm had me hurriedly leading a group to shelter in a concrete gun emplacement. Safe, but a bit of a squeeze. We almost didn’t make to cover on time due to the unexpected removal of a footbridge, we didn’t pre-check the route that day.


ALWAYS RE-READ YOUR NOTES. Always re-read your notes and have them with you. Even if you have done the event many times before don’t entirely rely upon your memory. Glancing at the notes as you go ensures you control what you are including and helps avoid you waffling on too much about a particular point or skipping bits. It puts you in conscious control of the material, so you can then add or remove material when events require you to make changes on the fly.


CLIPBOARD. Keeping your notes with you on a clipboard I feel gives a lectern like sense of authority. Practically it stops the papers flapping about when you are trying to read them. If the clipboard has a fold over cover with a pocket you have somewhere to store pictures and hand outs where they can be quickly accessed. A fold over clipboard also keeps the rain off your paperwork.


NO MORE THAN 25. Do place a maximum number on your tour group. 25 is really the limit. I have done 40 in a rural setting with plenty of space, but moving a group that size takes time. The concertina effect needs to be borne in mind with working out the timings. They will generally walk slower than you and the group will spread out into a long line between each stop. You arrive but it will be several minutes before the stragglers in the group arrive (though this does give you a bit of time to prepare and catch your breath). Road crossings, stiles and gates will make it even slower. Your speed will be nearer to 1kph, rather than the usual walking speed of 2.5kph, when all this and the time for presenting the material is taken in to account.


DO A HEAD COUNT. Make sure you know how many you have so you know if you have lost someone. If it is the kind of walk where it is acceptable for people to drift away, do let them know and get them to nod or wave to you when they do.


GET IN FRONT. Sometimes people will set off ahead of you, particularly if you get way laid with questions. Be polite but do get in front so they don’t go the wrong way. But keep an eye on the rear and make sure they don’t lose sight of you. In cities wear something distinctive or colourful so you can be easily spotted and followed such as an umbrella or flag or distinctive hat.


THE NUMBER OF STOPS ON ROUTE. A balance needs to be struck between the number of stops and the overall distance. Too many stops and it will seem like the walk will never end. It will seem more like a shuffle rather than a walk. Too few stops will feel like being short changed. However, some longer gaps will give people the chance to chat and socialise.


10 MINUTE STOPS. Anything longer and no matter how good the material, you will not be able to prevent your audience from starting to feel uncomfortable if they are standing. You will know this is beginning to happen as they shift their weight and shuffle their feet. So, with 10 minute stops as a maximum the ideal is around 6 stops per hour in an urban setting. Rural guided walks will take much longer and have much longer gaps between stops, but if your group can sit on the grass they will welcome longer stops.


CHRONOLOGY VERSUS GEOGRAPHY. A happy day it is when a walk you lead provides locations in chronological order. It has only happened to me once. Usually the material is all over the place. Either a theme, chronology or narrative is needed to pull it all together. With a city which has a diverse history there my not seem to be an immediate theme, but one may emerge as you work up the material in to the tour. Also, not every stop needs to be part of the theme, odd random stops or material for contrast adds a bit of spice. And despite how in depth your knowledge is of the chronology or narrative of the locations, you will need to simplify it for the audience to grasp it and be able to use it to hold all the stuff you are telling them together in their minds. A flyer with a timeline, map or family tree can really help with this.


RESEARCH. If you don’t know it all already you will need to go gathering. You will often find that you have to bone up on subjects you were previously unaware of. Though you will end up with too much material and possible stops than you can use, some of it will be useful spare material to take with you on the day, just in case you need to fill some time. And do use libraries as well as the internet. There is so much lurking there that is not online. You may find a book that covers just the area you are planning to use for your tour.


On Route


START WITH A QUOTE. Or something else well worded. Rehearse the opening more than the rest of the material. A good start makes you more confident. It also makes a good opening impression. It is what they will remember. With a similar well rehearsed ending it will bookend the other material, holding it all together and making it all seem much tidier than it might be on paper.


WHO, WHAT, WHERE. Manage their expectations. Tell them who you are (an expert, amateur or bluffer), what you will tell them (the content, level, degree of detail) and where you will be going  (route and sites). Tell them the length of the route, the rough timings and any mobility access issues.


IT IS NOT A LECTURE. There is no time or means for your audience to make notes. You can however give them references to follow-up, a link to a web resource you have prepared, a flyer with a timeline or tell them where they can get the book or guidebook.


SPEAK UP. The principal cause of a bad tour is not being able to hear the tour guide. If you sound slightly too loud to yourself then you are probably doing it right. You will need to be louder to deal with traffic and other background noise. But do give up if you need to shout because there is a Vulcan bomber going directly overhead (yes it did happen to me while on a hilltop and you could almost feel the heat of the engines). If you are reading closely from your notes, the paper will reflect back most of your voice that would otherwise be heard by the audience. You will sound too loud to yourself and drop your volume further. The same thing happens to a lesser extent with wide brimmed hats (which is why I have adopted the use of a deerstalker). Keep your head up and make eye contact.


BE CLEAR. To be clearer try and speak slightly slower than you than normally. When you are nervous or excited one tends to speed up. Talking too quickly will mean losing your audience.


BREVITY. Don’t go on too long. Give what you feel is not quite enough material for a location. If you are an expert on the locations, you will love every detail about them. Your audience don’t have that connection, so they will not appreciate every detail. What you should be doing is more like an advert, you are selling the place to them, not telling everything to them.


TWO VOICES. You can do so much more with two. The change of voice helps keep your audience attentive as it is less wearisome for the ears. You can present alternate locations or do different themes on the walk. Conflicting evidence, opinions or versions can be given different voices and made clearer. You can work in even closer ways such as for example reading the quotes for each other’s sections, or alternate items on a list when reading out, or actual dialogue. As well as any actual dialogue. Its doesn’t have to turn in to full theatre. The main disadvantages are that it takes twice as long, requires joint rehearsals, any money needs to be shared and if you end up trying to do it solo the material needs to be completely reworked.


ON ROUTE INFO. Information panels can have useful diagrams and pictures which you can make use of. However, you can lose control as some people read stuff out before you get to it or get distracted. So, try and stand in front of the text while pointing at the pictures. Experts in the audience can be a mixed blessing; adding extra material you didn’t know or stealing your punchlines and taking over.


DANGER? Sometimes some people and livestock can make your group nervous even when there is no actual real danger. Don’t shrug and ignore this. They are your guests, make them comfortable. So, leave a location early or skip it entirely. You can always do a mini-recap at the next stop.


DON’T UPSTAGE THE LOCATION. Don’t stand in the way of what you are talking about. Stand to one side TV weather presenter style. And do not turn your back on the audience when you point, as they won’t be able to hear what you are saying. Either turn to point and then turn back to speak, or point without turning round as you speak. It is tricky to remember to do it every time. Pointing with a walking stick or umbrella is popular and is useful sometimes, but be careful as it is very easy to accidently hit people. If the location is dark pointing with a torch can be very effective, but for safety do not use a laser pointer. And when you have finished talking do, leave time for them to take a closer look themselves and take a photo. The place is the star. This is not a lecture, it is an experience, so let them experience it.


WHERE TO STAND. Keep back from traffic and other sources of background noise. A few metres can make a lot of difference. When doing the recce note the acoustics about the places you choose to use and where you will place yourself and the group. Avoid standing where your voice and all those wandering eyes of your group may bother people in their homes and businesses. (My office’s meeting room regularly has meetings disturbed by yelling children dressed as pirates. Luckily, we don’t mind.) You will need to direct them gently to stand in the right place. Note that standing on soft surfaces such as grass is less tiring on the feet. They will always stand too far away, so step forward when starting to address them. Make eye contact when you can. If they are quiet they are listening not bored. If they are getting bored or uncomfortable, they will start to shuffle about with their postures, shifting weight to another foot. Just moving them to another spot 10m away with a slightly different view will help. Oscar Wilde said, “It is better to leave 5 minutes before they want you too, rather than 5 minutes after they wished you had.”


ILLUSTRATIONS. People are happy to help and hold things up for you. This frees you to point at the pictures. Do thank them afterwards. Laminated pictures are better to circulate as they survive the many hands, wind and rain. Handing round objects adds some tactile experience to all the looking and listening. However, they can stop listening as these circulate about so don’t do too much of this. Also don’t hand round anything valuable or breakable. Detailed pictures or maps might not be visible to all those in a large group standing three rows deep. What you circulate round may take too long to travel around a large group, so you could hold it up yourself and slowly pan it past their faces.


Locations and Material


DATES. People like to hear dates even though they won’t remember them. Try to avoid using too many dates as a tour is a guide to the information about a place, it is not the definitive monograph.


BIG PICTURE AND ILLUSTRATIVE DETAILS. Summarise the history. Paint a broad impression. It is OK to leave some of the complexity out. Details are required as well to illustrate boarder points and to make it local. But do avoid too many details. Putting personalities in along with the details brings it too life more, even if the names are unknown. When you have a lot of information such as a list of the all the owners of a house, or all the finds found on a dig, show the whole thing but just pick out a few. They don’t need to hear it all, or have time to read it, but they will appreciate at a glance how much more could be said and that you are just picking out the highlights.


DEALING WITH QUOTES. Always read quotes even if you know them by heart. It makes it clear to the audience that you are quoting, and that these are not your own words. An exception to this is poetry, some bits of poetry do work well recited from memory if you can do it well.


BROAD OR NARROW. With the material you are aiming for a centre point between the local and specific, against the wider contextual and global. Too far to either extreme and you will lose people through seemingly irrelevant generalities or specifics. The balance point will vary for the type of group on the tour.


LOCATIONS AND MATERIAL. You need the two together to make a worthy stop on your tour. At one extreme a good location with little or no material is just a photo opportunity and not a tour stop. A poor location with good material should really be part of a publication and not a tour stop. However, a poorish location can be enhanced with period photos if there is some feature common between the then and now view that the group can easily see.


TOO MUCH MATERIAL. A location with too much material is a challenge. You could focus on the  famous, the infamous or the quirky. Don’t try to cover it all. Do a few bits; the beginning, middle and end, and perhaps tease them with headlines of matters you do not have to time to cover, and say they will need to buy your book, book you for a lecture or explore it more in their own time. If it is a tourist attraction in its own right there are other issues. The management of the site may not want you holding a group outside, so stay in public space unless you have permission. They may run their own tours, but even if it is a free site with free tours they may not appreciate you taking people in and round the place. If you can go in and it is free, it is diplomatic to make a donation and to encourage your group to do likewise.


TOO LITTLE MATERIAL. A location with too little material is a different kind of challenge. You could pad with some generalities about sites of that type or just make it a brief stop. Brief stops are OK but don’t do too many of them.


LINKING LOCATIONS. Some tour routes you create will have wonderfully contrasting locations that tell opposite sides of a story. It is worth thinking through how you will handle it. You could flag it up before hand, or deliberately leave it as a surprise. If you are lucky the two buildings (a dialogue in architecture), structures or features are inter-visible or even next to each other. When this happens it is wonderful, particularly when you unexpectedly flip from one to the other.


SITE OF / FLOOR PLAN OF. Archaeological sites that are not visible, or nearly not visible, are a challenge and an opportunity. Go beyond the map or diagram and use people to reconstruct the building. Position people where walls, door posts or stones once stood. This is a very gentle bit of audience participation which most people are quite happy to do as they are all in it together and not being singled out. Then describe what it would have looked like, fill in the blanks of your rough 3D reconstruction. Paint a word picture. This nicely gets you off reading your notes as it can be done from a picture in your mind. But if your reconstruction is too large and you need to shout across it, do gather them in as soon as you have established the sense of the scale of the site for the entire group.


SETTING UP. You can take this ‘performance archaeology’ one stage further if you are on a private site. You can set things up in advance with non-invasive reconstructions, such as coloured stakes, spray chalk or lights. These are fairly quick, non-invasive and reversible. Though do avoid using string or tap as they are a trip hazard. Lost verticality can be, wind permitting, recreated with a helium balloon on a string. Other props and objects can be hidden on route to avoid the need to carry so much.


AMBIGUITY IS AN ASSET. When everything is known, or rather the impression is given that everything is known, about a site or a person connected with a site, it can be a bit flat when explaining it. On the other hand, a site with multiple possible interpretations is not a problem but an opportunity for creative engagement. Your audience isn’t being told the answer, they have the option to make up their minds. However, do not over load them with too much detail, as usual, just summarise the various options. In the odd case when there are no established opinions about what something might be at all this is OK, but it doesn’t really engage so well as there is less to get their minds going.


HAVING A LAUGH. Comedy doesn’t necessarily diminish the importance of the material being communicated. It is not a bad in itself but be sensitive as you might be mocking something some of your audience are passionate about. Don’t go too far. Also, this is not stand-up comedy, it’s a tour. The site and its history are more important than the gags. Use them sparingly and either make the jokes good or really poor! The occasional gag does raise people’s attention levels when they may be drifting off. That is why politicians use them.


YOUR OPINIONS. Always make clear when it is your personal opinion or idea rather than from a researched source. You can get in to trouble passing off idle speculation as fact. And never just make stuff up, even if you don’t know the answer to a question. It is better to be thought of as not knowing everything rather than as a liar. If you make a mistake, that is either pointed out by someone or you have just let your mouth run away with you, correct yourself then and there. It is easier and improves your standing with your audience.


BEING PERSONAL. Putting in personal anecdotes helps create a rapport with your audience. People like you sharing. Being personal makes you a person and not a mere role. Don’t do too much of this, and make sure your personal revelations are linked to the site or the material, e.g. this is where my dad used to work.


POPULAR CULTURE AND LEGEND. These add some contrast to the history or archaeology, but they can be too much of a distraction if you spend too long on them (unless of course this is the focus of the tour). However, you do need to be clear how closely they accord or differ from the factual material. Historical film and TV references are good for quickly orientating people who are not so familiar with a period of history. People also enjoy being told what had been filmed where they are standing.  Legend and folklore need to be used carefully. There are some fabulous stories, but they may need to be carefully abridged as some are quite long. Some myths are claimed by more than one place, so do mention the other claimants, someone from the audience will pick you up on this if you don’t and they may come from there. Also, not all folklore and legends are that interesting, some of it can be rather dull.


ORRIBLE MURDERS. Sensational material is safer to do the further back in time it is. With more recent events it can seem tasteless and may even involve relatives of those on the tour. But even prehistoric material can be an issue; ‘are you calling my ancestors cannibals?’.


ENJOY IT! If you look like you are enjoying it, they probably will too. Share your passion for the site and its story.


The End


END AS YOU BEGAN. Have a rehearsed set of words. Thank them all for coming and putting up with whatever mishaps may have happened on the way. Thank any persons or organisations that helped or sponsored the event. Make sure they know the route back to the start if you are not already there or going that way yourself. Tell them where to find out more; a flyer, a guidebook, website or publication. And, of course, any other tours you will be doing. You can leave them with a final thought or quote and then take a bow. You have earned it!