Museum Piece

Why does sometimes contradict what museum docents and tour guides say? Because those docents and guides are often wrong.

Published Jan 7, 2016

We often receive comments from readers who are confused because they've been told something by a person they perceive to be an expert that contradicts what we've asserted in one of our articles. "A docent at the official World of Coca-Cola museum said that Coke was in fact carbonated by accident" or "our tour guide in Washington, D.C., told us that equestrian statues do actually reflect how their subjects died," they write, implying (or outright stating) that we're obviously wrong in our fact-gathering.

It's not hard to understand the impulse: these readers have just been present at the scene, so to speak, with someone presumed to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the subject at hand, who told them the opposite of what some faceless person wrote on a "non-official" reference web site (i.e., Who wouldn't be inclined to heed the former?

But here's the "secret" we've learned through long experience: docents and tour guides are just as susceptible to spreading misinformation and folklore as fact. That's not to say that we're proclaiming all of them to be unreliable purveyors of falsehoods — many docents and tour guides are assiduous about checking information and not repeating anything they haven't been able to reasonably verify (or at least not without cautioning their audiences that some of their anecdotes may be more fiction than fact.) However, many guides receive and pass along tales relayed to them by their colleagues without thinking to question them, believing (as some of our readers do) that a respected authority figure would never impart information that was less than accurate.

Moreover, tour guides and docents are essentially in the entertainment business and know that engaging-but-untrue stories typically please audiences more than mundane facts do, as Harvard University's newspaper, the Crimson, noted in a 1990 article:

Typically, tours [of Harvard] are geared toward displaying the landmarks of Harvard. A tourist haven, the University draws crowds of business people and international visitors as frequently as interested students.

But cute stories and apocryphal anecdotes are also a mainstay of the tours. Harvard mythology is an integral part of what the tour guides dispense, and each stop along the way marks another landmark where someone famous did something fascinating.

First stop: Harvard Hall, where the tour guide tells the oft-repeated story of the student who stole a book from the collection of John Harvard's books housed in the building.

As the story goes, that night Harvard Hall burned down, and the student realized he held the last rare book in John Harvard's collection. When he strutted into the president's office the next morning, he was thanked for the book, but expelled for stealing it from the library.

There is a story for every stop: the statue of three lies, the stipulations on Widener library, the butter pads on the ceiling of the Harvard Union. Most of tales elicit "oohs" and "ahs" — and occasional chuckles — from the people on the tour.

Passers-by, most of them undergraduates, tend to smirk knowingly. But it's a bright spring day, and the combination of landmarks and legends seems to have the desired effect on the visitors. Touring students are often visibly awed, walking around the Yard with their mouths open or their heads cocked back.

I can relay a case in point from personal experience:

My wife and I once took part in a guided group tour of Stagecoach Inn a local historical site and museum billed as being an authentic 19th century stagecoach stop on the route between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Actually, the first "Stagecoach Inn" (previously the Grand Union Hotel) was moved from its original location to a new site several miles away in 1965 to accommodate an expansion of the Ventura Freeway, then the relocated structure burned to the ground in 1970, so the current Stagecoach Inn is far less a vintage historical building than a "modern inn built according to the plans of a hotel that used to exist somewhere else." But I digress.

The tour took us through the Inn's front parlor, which appeared to be filled with furniture and objects dating from the latter half of the mid-19th century, without regard to whether they were actually furnishings one might have encountered in the original hotel during its heyday. One of the objects on display in the parlor was an upright piano, about which the docent solemnly informed our group: "We don't know how old this antique piano is, but we know it was built before 1880 because that's when pianos were standardized with 88 keys, and this one has only 56 keys."

Something about this narrative didn't sound right to me, so as the tour group moved on to the far end of the room, I lingered behind to ponder this antique musical instrument. What the docent had said wasn't completely implausible, as early pianos were typically smaller in range and boasted varying numbers of keys until the 88-key version became the standard sometime around the 1880s. Still, I'd played a bit of piano myself, and the instrument before me appeared to be one that bore a modern, standard keyboard configuration. Curious, I began counting its keys; when I finished, I burst out laughing and quietly gestured to my wife to come back over to where I was standing. After she reached me, I told her (sotto voce): "Yes, this piano has 56 keys. 56 white keys. It also has 32 black keys." In other words, this "antique" piano had the same 88-key configuration that virtually all modern pianos have.

Although it's possible the piano in question was still a fairly old one dating from the days before 88 keys became the standard (since manufacturers such as Steinway produced 88-key pianos as far back as 1869), it was obviously not a 56-key piano as anyone the least bit knowledgeable about pianos could tell at a glance), and therefore nothing definitive could be ascertained about its age based solely on the size of its keyboard. Clearly our docent was not the least bit knowledgeable in this area and had repeated as fact a (ridiculous) piece of information she'd heard from someone else.

So, caveat emptor: Just as the local resident you stop on the street may or may not give you adequate directions where you want to go, so your tour guide may or may not give you truthful information about what you want to know.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as back in 1994.

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