Stepping into the Past with Historical Walking Tours

      3 Comments on Stepping into the Past with Historical Walking Tours

By Jay Young

As the cold weather sets in southern Ontario, I’m reminded of the fun activities I enjoyed during warmer days of months past. This year I had the opportunity to design and lead a handful of historical walking tours of downtown Toronto.

These tours were based on particular themes within or approaches to the city’s history, and they catered to either very specific or quite diverse audiences. One tour examined the environmental history of downtown Toronto for a small group of visiting academics attending the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Environmental History (I designed the tour in tandem with a chapter of a similar topic that I published in Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region (2013), an edited collection created for the conference). Another walk, co-designed by Heritage Toronto’s Gary Miedema and Ryerson University’s Ross Fair, surveyed the general history of the city in ten stops. The tour served as a sort of “Greatest Hits” of Toronto’s history for the immensely popular Doors Open Toronto weekend held every May. The history of different modes of transportation during Toronto’s automobile age formed the theme of another walk, which I led as one of Heritage Toronto’s historical walking tours.

Although I’m a relative newcomer to historical tours, I’ve come to realize that this form of “making history” is quite a valuable way to present key questions and issues of the past to diverse groups of people. What follows are my thoughts on ways to create a successful tour. I hope it is useful for anyone who might consider designing or leading their own walking tour. Please feel free to contribute your own ideas in the comments section!

A theme and a place
Is there a particular historical theme or a unique place that interests you? The list of themes that can be explored in a historical walking tour is endless: architecture and infrastructure, the natural environment, political conflict, gender, sexuality, technology, arts and culture, and many more.

What part of the past are you trying to communicate? For example, are you trying to uncover a part of the past that most people are unfamiliar with? If you are designing a tour for an organization, the theme might already be selected for you. For example, the theme of Doors Open Toronto this past year was “creators, makers, and innovators,” and so we designed our tour with this in mind.

It’s a good idea to select a geographical area that you are familiar with. Not only will you have a basis of knowledge about the area’s past to work with, you’ll also be aware of its physical environment: its sidewalks, buildings, natural amenities, and other features. The logistics of an area also play a strong influence on whether a walking tour is successful. Consider its accessibility: is it hard to get to? Is there washroom access along the route? How long should the tour be? Is it marked by difficult terrain that might dissuade participants (or encourage resilient travellers)?

Do your research
Like any form of “making history,” it is essential to do your research. Secondary sources (reputable books, articles, and other publications) on the area or theme you are exploring is probably the best place to start, since you can draw on the research that has already been done by others. You might also wish to consult primary sources: things like newspapers, correspondences, photographs, and other preserved remnants of the past. Historic maps – especially survey maps and fire insurance maps – are another excellent primary source for walking tours, since they suggest how the physical landscape has changed over time. For example, you’ll learn the approximate year that a popular building was erected or an important street laid.

Exploring the area yourself is a key part of the research process. Keep your eyes open! As you think about your tour, you should ask yourself questions rooted in historical thinking: what elements of the landscape has changed? What has stayed the same? And what explains both continuity and change?  Bring a pen and paper with you, so you can record your thoughts. Further research should hopefully answer these questions.

A moving narrative
Most methods of “making history” – a book, a film, a lecture – often allow its creator a fair amount of freedom in terms of how they choose to structure the narrative. The general story might be arranged chronologically, thematically, or some other fashion.

A walking tour different. Its narrative is tied to the route. This is often where the fun and creativity comes in. Sure, logistics play a large part in route design: where to begin, the paths to take, the duration of the tour, and where to end, etc. But I’ve found the challenge of linking the narratives of walking tours with their routes to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole process of designing a tour.

The first stop is a suitable time to provide an overview of the tour’s themes and its main arguments (as well as introducing yourself and other practical matters), while the final stop can be used to summarize the tour. And all the stops in between help illustrate and push forward the themes and arguments. In this sense, the structure is somewhat similar to a typical historical essay: introduction, body, conclusion. Yet the order that examples are presented is inevitably constricted to the geographic reality of the walking tour’s area. This isn’t a detriment, it’s an opportunity.

Not all historical tours need be based on walking. This year, Heritage Toronto began offering bus tours and even a cycling tour!

Hundreds of people lined up to participate in "Creating Toronto: The Story of the City in Ten Stops" a Doors Open walking tour that took place six times over two days.

Hundreds of people lined up to participate in “Creating Toronto: The Story of the City in Ten Stops,” a Doors Open walking tour that took place six times over two days.

Knowledge dissemination, audiences, and the role of stories
Historical tours are a great way to disseminate historical knowledge to a diverse array of audiences. They create interest and excitement by moving from stop to stop through a physical area, uncovering the fascinating pasts of a place that a participant might have lived in their whole life, might have never have seen, or anything in between. Since information is communicated orally and visually, historical tours can interest people who typically don’t engage with historical knowledge via the written form. When designing the content of your, keep the audience in mind. Is the tour intended for experts? The general public? Families with small children?

No matter the audience, interesting stories – whether examples of the dramatic or the everyday – play a key role in historical tours. Stories help pique the interest of participants and often makes the past seem more relatable.

Community engagement
I’ve found that historical tours are a two-way street. They have allowed me an opportunity to present my historical knowledge in a unique form. Yet I’ve also learnt much from participants on my tours. During my transportation history walk, I enjoyed a chat with both a retired professional engineer who came at the topic from a different disciplinary perspective as well as a resident whose late spouse had been involved in highway planning in Ontario during the 1960s and 1970s. I hope they learnt as much from me as I did from them! So leave time for questions and stories from participants – you might learn something to add to your tour the next time you lead it.

The role of technology
Social media and mobile technology can play a useful part in historical tours. In particular, participants (either before or after the tour, or during the tour if they have mobile devices) might be directed to a simple website related to the tour, where they can compare historical images with the current landscape at specific stops. For the ASEH tour I used this technique via a WordPress website, which participants found useful to compare the past with the present.

A final thought: the history of historical tours?
Historians have done excellent work over the past few decades on the contested roots of monuments, historical reenactments and festivals, as well as other forms of public memory. These activities are part of what historian Alan Gordon terms “public pasts.” But it strikes me that little is known of the history of historical walking tours as a form of creating and presenting public memory. Especially since the popularity of these tours shows no sign of waning, a study of the origins and evolution of organized historical walking tours is waiting for its historian!

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

3 thoughts on “Stepping into the Past with Historical Walking Tours

  1. Amanda Robinson

    Great piece Jay. I found your discussion of thematic approaches to be especially helpful as I reflect on my own employment history as a museum interpreter and aspiring public historian.

    Although I haven’t delivered a museum tour to a public group in some time, I’ve often thought about the process as a performance. While I think delivering an undergraduate lecture also incorporates performative elements, the history tour – be it in a museum, a heritage garden, or along a historic walking route – is a specific sort of performance in that the audience can be more heterogenous and also participates informally in the performance in a different way than your standard history lecture. As you show, and as I’ve experienced myself, the tour guide often benefits from an organic co-exchange of information with the touring public. Embracing this helped me to tailor my historical performance to an increasingly diverse public, it also gave me some insight as to why people seek out museum tours as a form of informal, or free-choice, education and leisure pursuit. This experience reinforced that many people form their version of the past through a synthesis of lived experience and a larger process of ideological “public pasts.” As a former museum worker for a National Historic Site, which relies on the celebration of a contested past, I often had to temper my urge to aggressively persuade the museum going public to question the official narrative that they just paid $10 to hear. Here I was mandated by my employer to celebrate industrial capitalism and wealth as the driving force behind progress and modernity for all. In my six years as a paid interpreter at this specific museum, it was rare that I would encounter anyone from the diverse museum going public who questioned this version of the past. Quite the contrary: many showed up to celebrate and commemorate it in a nostalgic and, sometimes, envious manner. However, they also attentively accepted the other voices that I would, as someone more intrigued by the social history available at this site, interlace into my own tour script and performance.

    I’m wondering if you have any additional insight into this from your tour goers. Did you get the overall impression that they walked in with a homogenous version of the past and left, perhaps, questioning this? Or, were you surprised at their ability to reflect on “public pasts” critically? Did you seek to incorporate a critique of “official” public memory, for example monuments or the part the nation building process plays in seeking to create an official narrative? Or, did you stick to a less controversial script when you led them on a walk through the past?

    Thank you for a very relevant and accessible post.

  2. Jay Young Post author

    Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for reading and thanks too for your very thoughtful comments. My experiences of designing and leading tours is a bit different that yours, because I wasn’t mandated by any person or organization in terms of the approach I’d take. I think that is a key point, and I’m glad you brought it up.

    I designed the environmental history tour with the hope of showing that even downtowns, often seen as the most urban and human-made parts of cities are, in fact, shaped by natural processes and, in turn, the actions of humans in downtowns have important impacts on the natural environment. So in this sense I was questioning the official narrative (or at least what was at one time an official narrative) that all central development represents and has represented progress, and that the natural environment is less important in cities than other non-urban spaces. The ASEH tour was designed for environmental historians who weren’t familiar with Toronto, so I don’t think my main theoretical argument was much of a surprise for them! And as academics they were critical thinkers – part of their professional training – about the city’s history. Nonetheless, I did try to emphasize not only moments of success but also moments of oppression and failure within the city’s history.

    My transportation history tour is also interesting in respect to official memory. Most of the participants were residents of the city, and some had some professional interest in the issue. Transportation – and what should be done today to improve mobility – is such a contentious issue that I’m not even sure how strong any idea of an official narrative is in the region! One of my aims was to show that the automobile has had a dramatic impact on the shape of the city and the daily lives of its inhabitants, so in this sense I suppose I did challenge the belief still held by some officials and residents that the city should always cater to the car at the expense of other forms of mobility and other aspects of urban life. I got the sense that the participants had different thoughts on transportation in the city today, and hence different perspectives on the city’s transportation history. For example, at the tour stop near the Gardiner Expressway I discussed the expressway plan for Metro Toronto and mentioned that many planned routes were never built. I got the sense that some participants (probably a minority) wished Toronto had continued to build expressways after Bill Davis’s cancellation of the Spadina Expressway in 1971, while others disagreed. But I ultimately hope participants took away from the tour the sense that issues related to transportation have long been controversial and complicated.

  3. Amanda Robinson

    Thanks for the reply Jay! Sorry I have been late to check-in. Interesting to consider the ways in which the baggage an audience brings with them to the tour influences their motivations, agenda, and engagement with the script content and interpretive style. Thanks again hope to cross paths soon.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.