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March 22, 2019

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Children are now in picture thanks to private guides

Weekends used to be a time of relaxation for Zong Zhen when he worked as a project manager for a Fortune 500 electrical products company. Now, Saturdays and Sundays are his busiest workdays.

Zong quit the corporate world to become a private tour guide for children and parents visiting museums and other cultural exhibitions.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, he served as guide to a group of four families visiting a special exhibition on Napoleon Bonaparte at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

“I love history and traditional culture,” Zong said. “I decided to make guide work my career at the end of last year, after I saw an increased demand for private exhibition guides.”

It is, perhaps, an unusual career choice for a man who majored in automation at Tsinghua University and then worked in the electrical products industry. “I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could do something without a company to support me,” he said.

He is now working for a professional guide service owned by a friend.

“More parents nowadays want to take their children to museums or galleries, and they are willing to pay for a private guide to help their children better understand exhibitions,” he said. “At the same time, the number of cultural and artistic events in Shanghai is increasing.”

The job requires extensive research to be able to maintain the interest of children for two to three hours.

“There is plenty of information online and in books, but I have to organize my presentations so that they are understandable and interesting to children,” he said.

He has guided more than 30 groups of primary and middle school students, often accompanied by parents, to several museums. He seems to resonate with his audiences.

For the tour of the Napoleon exhibition, each pair of child and parent was charged 299 yuan (US$44) for his services, in addition to museum entry fees.

Several days before the visit, Zong and an assistant sent links to documentaries to the parents so that the children could familiarize themselves with Napoleon and the history surrounding him before visiting the museum.

When he met the groups at the museum, he gave them maps of Paris. For the tour, he used a tablet and a loudspeaker.

His tours give information not shown on exhibition captions, and Zong invites his tour group to “interact” by finding important places related to Napoleon on a map or watch video clips related to the exhibits.

Other museum visitors lingered to hear his explanations of the Napoleon exhibits. One student followed him through the whole 2.5-hour tour.

“We’ve used Zong as a guide for several exhibitions and will continue to do so in the future,” said a mother surnamed Wang. “My daughter loves such exhibitions, but I can’t give her such detailed professional explanations. Even I learned a lot from him. Without a professional guide, we would give exhibits only passing glances and leave a museum with little understanding.”

Wang’s daughter, a third-grader, was enthusiastic about the guide service. “Mr Zong made it very interesting,” she said. “Most official guides provided by the museums talk to adults and are too hard for me to understand.”

Official museum guides usually serve large groups of visitors, and sometimes it’s hard to hear what they are saying or to get close enough to have a good look at exhibits. During the day Shanghai Daily tagged along on Zong’s tour of the Napoleon exhibition, there were at least three other private guides leading groups of visitors.

Among them was Rita Xu, a former personnel officer at a foreign venture. She’s been working as a private guide for more than two years.

Xu said she loves visiting exhibitions and often takes her daughter with her. In order to help the young girl understand an exhibition, she often visited the site ahead of time. Then she “translated” the meaning of the exhibition into language a child could understand.

Her “audience” gradually expanded from her daughter to the girl’s classmates and then to strangers.

Xu said she sometimes dresses up to reflect the theme of an exhibition and organizes art-related activities, such as painting and role-playing, after the visits.

She is now such a well-known private guide in Shanghai that some museums have invited her to record voice guides for young people and to design products aimed at children.

“We bring more visitors to venues, so most museums and galleries welcome us,” she said.

Both Zong and Xu said they are earning less than previously, but their jobs give them more satisfaction.

Zong said he is now developing more services, such as cultural lectures and study tours to museums and cultural venues in other cities. While some public museums are reluctant to comment on the private guides, private museums seem openly supportive.

“I’m glad to see museums become extensions of the classroom for children and their parents,” said Shen Qibin, executive president and artistic director of Shanghai Himalayas Museum. “It was a trend I saw 10 years ago in Western countries, and now it has eventually come to China.”

He said a museum should function as a platform for public education, academic research, exhibitions and collections.

“Our museum actually cooperates with private guides, offering them free training,” Shen said.

“Many of them participate in our lectures or watch videos on our website to become better acquainted with the exhibitions. As long as they follow museum rules and don’t disturb other visitors, we will always welcome them.”

Shen said the museum is making an effort to reach out to visitors, such as setting up classes in calligraphy and painting for both children and adults.


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