Using IVR for Place-Based History

Walking tours are probably the basest form of public history. It’s like a museum tour without walls; you have a “tour guide,” and instead of artifacts, you have the built environment, or lack thereof, explaining a narrative. We talked in class about whether a visitor has a better experience with a human tour guide or an electronic guide. We debated this issue and pros and cons for both were discussed. A human tour guide can bring alive a narrative when they and the audience make personal connections to it and discuss those connections, however a visitor can use the electronic guide at their own pace and can use it as they would like. Using technology for a walking tour is much the same as having an electronic guide in a museum—it has its ups and downs.

For this year’s walking tour, “The Curse of Peg Leg,” we used IVR (interactive voice response) technology and a pamphlet to guide participants on a tour of sites important to the crimes and trial of Marion “Peg Leg” Brown. We set up a toll-free phone number that participants can call, and they are then directed to select the number of the tour stop they are at and hear that part of the narrative. It’s much like calling your credit card company and pressing a bunch of numbers to try to talk to an actual person, but way easier.

The positives of using IVR technology are that participants can complete the tour at their desired pace and at their desired time of day without having to conform to a schedule of tour guides. The negatives include not being able to ask questions, and the fact that a cellular device is needed to complete the tour. I will also say that setting up the phone tree using Amazon Connect did include two minor meltdowns after what seemed to be breakthroughs. However, once I had figured out how to use the program through trial and error (as there was not a helpful handbook or website for beginners), I was able to construct the phone tree with little issue, but it does get a little disorganized with arrows pointing every which way. It was beneficial that Amazon Connect was WAV compatible and that the files could be as large as needed. With my experience using CenturyLink’s EZ Route for Hear, Here La Crosse, all audio files had to be VOX format and could only be 120 seconds long. This caused issues with sound quality (especially with the background being busy streets) and lots of back-end work to accommodate audio files that were longer than 120 seconds.

Creating walking tours with IVR technology could be extremely beneficial for institutions with limited resources. Tours like this would allow for individualized experiences, or if need be, could be adaptable to incorporate a tour guide to give more context and answer questions that participants have. There could also be component to the tour that incentivizes or creates curiosity about the institution or its collection. Let me know what you think in the comments about the positives and negatives of IVR technology or about how institutions can use it in other ways.

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