Policing history: Philadelphia may license tour guides
Is it a crime to say George Washington slept where he didnt?
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Few in the tourist industry have lived the kind of life that has enabled the opinionated Avery to become tour guide extraordinaire. A lifelong city resident, author of three books on the city, newspaper reporter for 35 years, and teacher of Philadelphia history courses at a local university, the gray-bearded Avery turns a walk through old Philadelphia into a feast for the mind. He can give you two hours on virtually anything you want, depending on which corner you turn, which building you pass, what question about art or literature or architecture or government you ask. He leads the way through crumbling graveyards and refurbished courtyards, over brick sidewalks and cobblestone alleyways, asking – a la Socrates – endless questions: "What language was this?" "How could you tell what really happened?" "Why does this make sense?" "Why not that?"Skip to next paragraph
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Then: "You want to sit in the pew where George Washington used to sit?" And no matter how many times you've heard that name, you catch your breath.
Over the clippetty-clop of a passing horse-drawn carriage, Avery gives a listen to what the driver says about a nearby house. "Well," he says of the guide, "he made [the original owner] a governor, when he was [actually] a mayor." But the commentary suggests that the driver has been inside the house, a good sign.
Guides inside top historic sites – the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Valley Forge National Park, and such – are National Park Service-trained personnel, and wouldn't need licenses under the Brown bill, says Jeff Guaracino, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, which favors the legislation. Of the 27 million annual visitors to the region, only a fraction take private tours, he guesses. While no one knows what percentage of them hear wrong information, the numbers don't matter, he says. "Our goal is that every single story you hear in Philadelphia is authentic."
Objectors think the bill unfairly singles out guides, and they wonder whether hotel concierges, visitor center personnel, park rangers, and others should also be licensed. Some say regulation risks censorship, with accuracy itself a subjective notion, given the imprecise, organic nature of history. Many operators already thoroughly train and regularly test their guides, they say, suggesting that a reputation for inaccuracy would put them out of business. Says tour operator Jonathan Bari, humans – however well-trained – will always make mistakes. "The only way to really avoid them would be for every tour to be scripted, vetted and recorded verbatim for accuracy and then played back to visitors," he has told the city council.
David Yadgaroff, of all-news KYW radio, editorialized that the proposal is "excessive," and suggested instead that scripts be presented for review to historians from, say, Ben Franklin's own University of Pennsylvania. "The last thing Philadelphia needs is another layer of bureaucracy."
The Philadelphia Business Journal wrote that no bill "would stop tour guides from embellishing or making up facts to make their tours more exciting." And it suggests that council members be the ones sent for history lessons, "if only to be reminded that onerous taxes and senseless rules were once grounds for revolution."
Whatever the outcome, Avery believes that his fight has already served notice to the private tour companies, several of which have hired him to clean up their scripts. "Even if no law comes about, there's going to be some good that's going to be done," he says.
What would the Founding Fathers, who took up the cause of liberty in this very place, make of the efforts – 200-plus years later – to tidy up their stories? What, for example, would Ben Franklin say?
Ron Avery isn't going to wax philosophic about freedom: "He would say 'Set the record straight: I was charming with the ladies, but I did not father 69 or 80 children.' "
[Editor's note: The original sub-headline misstated the reasons for possible fines.]