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Canberra’s guided art tours: Why bother?

Cate Lyons

Art galleries can be intimidating places. There are so many iconic artworks to see, art styles to come to grips with and floors to navigate. How do you digest any of it in a meaningful way? You can’t possibly see everything in the hour or two you’ve got, so where do you start?

While the gift shop or café are always attractive starting points, the answer could be to join a public tour. You might be put off thinking the information will be too technical, it will go for too long, or you’re not going to be interested in anything they are going to look at? Maybe your mind immediately starts working out how to quietly slink off when you get bored? You might even be terrified that you don’t know much about art and it will be just plain embarrassing if you ask a dumb question.

The answer is to relax, take a deep breath and realise everyone else is probably thinking the same things. Of course you’re not an expert…that’s why you’re taking the tour.

So many of our city’s large and small cultural institutions offer fantastic tours and they really are the best way to discover the personal stories, history and hidden gems in these venerable institutions, and in an engaging way.

Volunteer guides at institutions such as The Australian War Memorial, National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, National Museum of Australia and Canberra Glassworks — amongst others — all undergo extensive training before being let loose on the public. These trained guides are not just enthusiastic about their subject matter, they are knowledgeable, articulate and selected to be guides because they are friendly and enjoy working with people.

They want to make you as excited about the institution’s collection as they are, to demystify it and explain it all in plain English so you come back. Again and again.

So what does a good tour look like?

There’s no one single template for a good tour, or one way to do it. All our national institutions here do it differently. Some guides follow scripts, most will tailor the tour according to what people are interested in if they can and one or two charge a fee. But however they are done, all should make you think differently about what you’ve seen. You should leave feeling stimulated and energised by what you’ve seen and learnt.

Did you know the National Gallery didn’t make its first major acquisition of Aboriginal art until 1972 but now it has the largest collection in the world with 7,500 pieces? Or that Australian troops won nine Victoria Crosses at Gallipoli or that in 1802 when the first Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy was shot dead, his head was cut off and sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England for his collection? No-one knows where his head is currently kept.

All our national institutions tell different aspects of Australia’s story, from our early days to our cutting edge contemporary art, and if you really want to get an insight into who we are and what our stories are, then take a tour with a volunteer guide and be surprised.

Taking a tour you are guaranteed to learn something you didn’t know before and might even discover a new treasure that will become a firm favourite.

Cate Lyons

Cate Lyons is a Canberra-based professional writer and editor with over 20 years experience. She’s not a writer like J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. She hasn’t written her blockbuster yet. But she is an excellent wordsmith who produces copy with care and thought and has a flair for creative copywriting and web content. She is also a voluntary guide at the National Gallery of Australia. More about the Author