Creating a New Eye Opener Tour at the British Museum

I was a Nehru Trust Fellow in the summer of 2015 to research, understand and evaluate the Access Features at the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. I also worked on a project for the Learning, Volunteers and Audiences Department (LVA) project of the British Museum. This project required me to evaluate the Eye Opener Tour in the South Asia Gallery (Room No. 33) at the British Museum. Based on my evaluation, feedback of the visitors and volunteers, I had to recommend a new route and script for the Eye Opener Tour.

If you are wondering what an Eye Opener Tour is, who are Volunteers, why would I be asked to evaluate the Tour and suggest a new route, here are some answers!

The British Museum was set up in 1759 in London at Bloomsbury with nearly 71, 000 objects gifted by Sir Hans Sloane to the British Government. The British Museum or BM as it is popularly called, has indeed come a long way. According to a 2014 study, BM gets nearly 67 lakh visitors annually!

The Great Court warmly welcomes you to the British Museum, always 🙂

What are the Museum Tours?

BM has a Volunteer Policy, which last revised in 2012 mentions that it “has a collection preserved and held for the benefit of all the world, present and future, free of charge and is a centre of research and inquiry at all levels.” The Museum earnestly endeavours to extend this collection to the world through a set of programmes that includes talks, tours, events, workshops and a host of other activities. These are targeted at various age groups and different sections of the audiences.

Around 35 million who search the Museum’s website can get information regarding these. http://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/planning_your_visit/free_tours_and_talks.aspx

Both paid and free tours are available, these are:

Paid Tour:

  • Highlights – usually held from 11.30 am to 1pm on Friday, Saturday & Sunday but all days during summer (paid tour)

Free Tours:

  • Spotlight: held on Fridays, from 5 – 7.30pm
  • Eye Opener, different locations in the Museum usually for 30 – 40 minutes
  • Gallery talks: Curatorial or subject expert led

The tour accommodates at most  25 people for a comfortable walk, although I have attended a tour where there were nearly 40 people present and we ran out of headphones and I lent mine to a elderly lady. Luckily I could stand near the expert and both of us could enjoy the talk.

Volunteer Ferelith telling the story of Shiva and Parvati

Who are Volunteers and what are they doing at the British Museum? The Annual Report 2014 -2015 of the Museum sums it up rather nicely:

“The British Museum places a lot of trust in their team of Volunteers. They are not only involved in the administration and projects, in the collation and recording of collection information. They also assist in the front of house, deliver the Hands On handling programme and most of the tours. The nearly 600 volunteers actively help in the Museum’s efforts of extending both “intellectual and physical access to the collection.” 

Presently there are 12 – 15 Volunteers in the Eye Opener tour at the South Asia Gallery, and about 23 – 28 Volunteers at the Handling Desk in South Asia. The number of Volunteers varies depending on season, in the peak season more Volunteers are needed against a lean season. Usually summers, July to October, at the Museum makes a peak season.

Stunning Amaravati Stupa fragments grace Room 33

What is the South Asia Gallery? Popular as Room 33, it presently comprises of India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Japan and Korea – thematically strung together by Buddhism. My project required me to focus on the Indian collection on display.

Why me?  I was asked to undertake this work as my work experience in this field in India would help me have a close affinity with the interpretation of the collections on display and my status as a visitor to the UK and BM would provide a certain objectivity to the Tour.

When I read the script, which Stuart Frost, Head, LVA, had kindly sent to me, I noticed big gaps in the timeline and story mentioned in it. When I brought this across, I was asked to develop it with the research and inputs required for it, for which BM and LVA were helpful.

The Methodology I adopted for working towards a new route and script needed me to work from India and while at London. Preparation in advance helped get more answers and puzzles sorted and save time.While in India, I familiarised myself with the Tour script, read up on the BM tours, trying to understand the context and relevance of the Tour to the Museum and the role of Volunteers which hasn’t been incorporated Indian museums so far!

Gold coin issued by Emperor Kumaragupta of the Gupta dynasty. For the first time we learnt how our rulers looked!

On reaching London, I took independent tours of Room 33, became part of Volunteer led Eye Opener Tour, and eavesdropped into visitor’s queries about the Tour at the Main Entrance. Stuart and Francesca Goff, Coordinator, Volunteers, gave me detailed inputs on the functioning of the Tours and the Volunteers. We agreed to evaluating Visitor and Volunteer responses to the existing tour of Room 33 and I started getting acquainted with the BM system of evaluations. Each institution has its own evaluation system that it has devised over years and it was necessary for me to not impose something new on them.

We made separate evaluation forms for the visitors and Volunteers and based on the feedback a new tour was created. Creating a new tour involved understanding  the requirements and working of the Museum and its museum visitors across age, gender, colour, race, classes, cultural, linguistic, educational and economic backgrounds.
I streamlined the Evaluations to the themes that needed to be focused upon:
  • Multi Cultural India
  • Multi Lingual India
  • Multi religious yet Secular India
  • Various architectural styles
  • Technologies of sculpture creation
  • Iconography
  • Decorative elements & their significance
  • Narrative, storytelling in most architectural spaces
  • Contemporary India, how some of the traditions still live on
  • More visual elements to appreciate

It was important to me that the visitors understood the various religious influences, both internal and external, have shaped the nature of what we know as India today. I kept in mind that if they plan to travel to India then they will have to spend a lot of time to see all the Indian festivals, related to religions and harvesting, celebrated through the length and breadth of the entire country – although not even a lifetime may suffice for such an experience!

Based on all of the above – feedback, considerations and artefacts on display – I suggested a new route for the Eye Opener Tour. I have been recently informed that it will be consulted for the new gallery refurbishment! So you can possibly take the new Tour in 2018 once the series of Volunteer trainings are complete.

Take some time out next time to grab a slice of the history of the Indian subcontinent at the Eye Opener Tour

Immense thanks to Stuart Frost, Francesca Goff and their team of Volunteers for guiding and working with me through the entire process.

The new tour route wouldn’t have been possible without invaluable inputs from Praneti Kulkarni, Alok Tiwari and Varadarajan Singan at London.

 

 

All photos in the post are taken by the author.

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2 thoughts on “Creating a New Eye Opener Tour at the British Museum

  1. Fascinating to understand what all goes into design of a simple tour..Do any of the Indian museums also have such elaborate processes to design visitor experience?

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    1. We do not have many such visitor experience tours in Indian museums, we hardly have Volunteers and Docents! Those that exist do have processes but I don’t know about the ‘elaborate’ part of it, we’re still in the process while museums like BM have been working in this area for years.

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