BY WILLIAM A. SOMMERFIELD For the past 10 years, the American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia has prided itself on the professional quality of the guides, docents and historical performers (or interpreters) we train and send out into the world to make the history of our nation come alive. Over time we have trained docents, guides and first person interpreters for important historical sites throughout the country. Philadelphia has a cadre of highly trained professionals, many of them are graduates from the American Historical Theatre program.
You can tour historic Philadelphia by tour bus, trolley, double-decker bus, walking guide, horse carriage or lumbering WWII-vintage army-surplus Ducks. Or you can take one of Historic Philadelphia’s excellent story tours. If you are a travel agent you will probably hire a guide you are familiar with from a local company that furnishes these quality services. You do not want to buy a pig in the poke. You want a properly costumed, well spoken and prepared, good presenter to guide your tour around the historic city.
On the occasion I take an inspection tour around the historic district and eavesdrop on touring groups or I stand and listen as the touring vehicles pass. You have never heard such historical illiteracy in your life. It makes one cringe and rail at those companies who hire guides who are not trained, nor provided with historical background and a script. Where these guides get in trouble is when well meaning tourists ask questions.
As the guide reached the Eternal Flame, one of his charges asked about its purpose. The guide smiled snidely and said, “The homeless people come into the square and catch squirrels which they roast over the flame.”
Several months ago I saw a load of 6th and 7th graders debark from a yellow school bus led by a shambling fellow in a too small cardboard three cornered hat and sagging knee britches. He was leading his charges into Washington Square where many Revolutionary War soldiers are buried. The square also contains an eternal flame, not unlike Arlington in DC. To those who know, this is a sacred place. As the guide reached the Eternal Flame, one of his charges asked about its purpose. The guide smiled snidely and said, “The homeless people come into the square and catch squirrels which they roast over the flame.” My better nature finally intervened. I stepped in front of the group and calmly explained its purpose, origin and historic context. And guess what? The kids actually stopped squirming and laughing and asked good questions about Washington.
What should be done? Easy! Audition candidates for licensing. Provide selected candidates a required reading list. Require written and oral testing. Prepare historical accurate scripts. License those who pass the test. Monitor performances and prepare notes to be discussed with each guide from time to time, not unlike a good theatre director. Prepare and include a plan for continued research and improvement. Require every guide to obtain a Philadelphia business license. Inform agencies bringing visitors to the city, that their guides must be licensed. Our experience firmly supports this proven methodology. Perhaps, if this plan is implemented quickly, we can save historic Philadelphia from historic pollution.
William A. Sommerfield, Creative Director, American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia. He can be reached at Somgw@aol.com