The Empathy Gap: An Ethnography of Volunteer Tour Guides and the Language of Affective Interpretation

By Emma Walcott-Wilson.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: May 18, 2017 $US5.00

Tour guides at historic sites are increasingly recognized by heritage and place studies as important agents of place creation and re-creation. Guides at Civil War sites repeatedly preform official and vernacular historical narratives for school groups, military staff-rides, and general visitors. At Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Southwest Missouri, the interpretive division relies on a reciprocal relationship with dozens of volunteer educators who make it possible to keep the Ray House, a homestead site used as a field hospital during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, open for visitor tours. Using the analysis of surveys, in-depth interviews, and tour observations, this study seeks to illustrate that volunteers act as important conduits for channeling and reinforcing certain cultural heritage identities and promulgating certain national values and popular myths. In this paper I will discuss the politics of attachment and discomfort as volunteer guides create narratives that are often far removed from the objects or stories established by the museum and park management. I will focus on the way guides create the stories designed to make an impression on visitors and why those stories regularly exclude difficult histories of enslavement and violence against women.

Keywords: House Museum, Tour Guides, Slavery

The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp.37-47. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: May 18, 2017 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 555.172KB)).

Emma Walcott-Wilson

Research Assistant, Ph.D. Student, Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA


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