How EU helps to make tours more interesting

We spoke about creative approach in tourism with the Kievite Natalia Gudkova, a certified coach in heritage interpretation and an interpreter guide. She recently came back from an international conference on heritage interpretation in Reims, France, which she visited thanks to a grant from the European Union’s Culture Bridges project. And she is ready to share her observations.


Volunteers who have children’s homes under their care are familiar with a sad phenomenon: children accept even the most expensive gifts for granted, without appreciating their value, because they don’t feel emotional bond with the donor. That’s more or less how people sometimes behave as regards nature: they use it without caring and appreciating. Especially tourists, for they do not have spiritual bond with the place they visit for entertainment only.


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This problem has first appeared in the United States in the 1950s, when local tourism became a mass pastime thanks to an extensive road network. Tourists began stumping and littering national parts and taking all their majesty apart for souvenirs.

Journalist Freeman Tilden proposed the solution of this problem in his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage. ‘He formulated the concept of “interpretation of natural and cultural heritage”’, Natalia Gudkova explains. ‘The main goal was to emotionally engage people visiting a park or a museum, to create the sense of involvement, to have them imbued with the desire to preserve, to protect from destruction what they enjoy looking at. Today, U.S. national parks employ certified interpreter guides only’.

A very simplified example of emotional engagement is the episode from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair in which a tour guide, desperately trying to draw attention of school students to a Monet painting, says: “Okay, let’s try it this way: this painting’s worth 100 million dollars!” and the kids instantly went quiet and began staring at the painting in astonishment. Have no doubts: they will definitely remember the painting and the artist’s name.


A real and contemporary example is the hit of the 2018-19 international art season – an exhibition of Bruegel’s paintings in Vienna’s Art History Museum. One of the museum’s halls exhibited various items dated to that era: shoes, clothes, cookware, etc., and visitors could see all that depicted on a painting.


This way, the paintings were coming alive, establishing a fine bond between the present and the long-gone past.

In Ukraine, most tour guides, especially those with Soviet schooling, work according to a rigid program and repeat like a chant: “I will answer all your questions at the end of the tour”. For an interpreter guide, visitors are not a homogeneous mass but individuals each having their own goals and interests, which the guide must quickly grasp and adapt to them in order to give the visitors exactly what they came here for. That’s why questions could be asked at any time. Interpretation involves interaction: interest arises when people discover certain secrets themselves, not take ready answers off the tray.

For instance, during tours of Kyiv National Museum of Natural Sciences conducted by the interpreter guide Oleksii Kovalenko, schoolchildren take quests, play detectives and cooks. Oleksii gives every participant of the Laboratory of Spices tour the bits of various spices and asks to experiment with them, explaining how cloves or nutmegs are used in cosmetics and medicine, and at the end of the tour, treats the kids to a cup of tea with spices and to an apple pie with cinnamon. Oleksii offers some 30 tours in total. During the two years since Oleksii Kovalenko and his colleagues have been doing interpretation, the number of the museum’s visitors has quadrupled. Every one of his tours is sold out.


‘The tours like that completely change the attitude of visitors toward exhibits, the museum and the science in general. The hitherto indifferent people turn into ardent fans. It doesn’t simply give hope for survival of old, conventional museums but also shows the way for a successful development’, Natalia Gudkova says.

Oleksii Kovalenko is, in a certain sense, her charge: he received a new specialization thanks to Natalia and Green Wave, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s volunteer organization. Two years ago, in 2016, Green Wave invited coaches from the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) in the United States. After the training, 14 Ukrainians received a certificate of interpreter guide, the first of its kind in our country. Later, another four joined their ranks (two of them studied in the United States and another two in Europe), plus Natalia herself as a certified coach. As of today, there are 19 interpreter guides in Ukraine in total.


Some “graduates” work in museums, others in national parks. In Mizhrichinskyi Landscape Park in the Chernihiv Oblast, interpreter guides created the Crane Bird eco-trail. Visitors can watch birds and reindeers, look for rare plants, study the local lore in a partisan dugout or the history of religion on a pagan shrine, either during the tours conducted by Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s volunteers or on their own.


Anna Kuze, a certified interpreter guide and a research fellow at Lviv Museum of Natural Sciences, coordinates BirdID, the first birdwatching course in Ukraine. Anyone can learn to tell a bird in the wild by the appearance or by voice.

Several years ago, the EU project “Carpathian Narrow-Gauge Railroads” helped create the Vyhoda Narrow-Gauge Railroad Heritage Center in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, the first true interpretation center in Ukraine. This is a one-stop place for everything a tourist might need, featuring an interactive exposition of the nature, history and folk crafts of the Vyhoda land; a school of young naturalists that has microscopes for you to take a look at your vegetative “catch” at the cellular level; a souvenir shop; and where you can buy a map and rent equipment to watch birds and animals.


And the most important attraction is the trip on a real old train that used to carry timber in the past. The train slowly travels a narrow-gauge railroad, letting the passengers enjoy the unique scenery, see life in typical Boyko villages, feel the touch of sunrays or raindrops (as one of the railcars is open).

To be sure, technologically we are still far behind the world’s frontrunners. ‘Imagine a 17-meter beehive, in which the life of a bee family is being reconstructed using the sound, light and vibration. The visitor becomes a part of the complex structure of the hive, becoming ecstatic at the understanding of how important there insects are for us, humans. I’m talking about The Hive project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London’, Natalia Gudkova says.


Another excellent example of a British interpretation museum is Dennis Severs’ House in London, meticulously recreating the life of several generations of a family of Huguenot silk weavers who lived in that house from 1740 to 1915. It displays unmade beds in bedrooms, food left on the tables, burning candles and logs in the fireplace, with backgrounds sounds of a “living” house. Even talking is prohibited in this museum, in order not to disturb the realistic atmosphere.

By Olga Pereverzeva