FORGOTTEN PROFESSIONS #5: TOUR GUIDE
by Onur Karaoğlu
How many possible walking routes are there in a house? In how many different ways can you tour a house? Into what other intervals can distances in a house be transformed?
Birol is a tour guide at a museum. He had been employed in this position he enjoyed greatly for twelve years. In this old building, it is possible to visit both a life from a past time shaped by objects, and exceedingly valuable works of art. Birol knows every corner of the museum like his own home, and can answer questions from visitors with great dedication. The museum space is small, which already requires a restriction on numbers of visitors, so it meant that during the pandemic, it was impossible for the museum to open. The museum closed to visitors in March 2020 as part of pandemic measures, and when it became clear that the situation would not be changing any time soon, it was opened to digital visits around a year later, once the technical infrastructure was completed. The museum administration decided that these digital tours, too, would be guided and asked Birol to learn this new technology and adapt his museum tour to these conditions.
While spending time at the computer trying to understand how he would now, months later, take visitors around the museum, Birol noticed this: He was no longer doing his old job, they had asked him to learn a new job. At first, Birol was excited by the idea of shaping this new job by remembering his old knowledge. But looking at changing images on the screen from where he was sitting led him to increasingly question the meaning of the work he was doing. He thought about movement in the museum, and the meaning of steps taken in the museum space. Thinking how possibilities presented by this technology such as 360-degree scanning, step-size digital movements and information presented with various videos and images involved something that was not compatible with the effort of a museum guide, he felt confused, forgot what he used to talk about in the museum in the past, and was afraid he would talk nonsense. He tried a few times to read out the museum tour from the pieces of paper he placed before him. Yet when he did that he felt like a machine. He thought, if this is temporary, perhaps I can make do like this. Then he thought of resigning.
Life always rewards the one who knows how to tolerate enough. The trick is to discover how to amuse yourself in the meantime. Contemplating this point, Birol decided to invent a game for himself. This game would help him do his job properly. He would design the game and set its rules himself, and play this game while he was doing his work. In this way, visitors would fully live the illusion that they were in the museum, like Birol. After taking this decision, Birol worked on redecorating his flat for three days, from morning till night. Changing the places of the furniture, he recreated spaces that corresponded to each section in the museum in different rooms of his house, and took care to make sure that each piece of furniture corresponded to some object in the museum. Now, when wandering around the flat and looking at familiar objects, he would be able to see the objects, spaces and stories of the museum. He was so caught up in the illusion that he wandered through the rooms of his home as if it were a museum. While doing this, he realized, with great astonishment, how easy it was for the human mind to deceive itself.
A short while later, a mock museum tour was held with the participation of museum employees. The chairman of the museum’s board, who hadn’t stopped by the museum for years, also took part in this tour. During the forty-minute tour, Birol had described the spaces everyone saw on their screens with such dynamism that at the end, the museum employees who participated were so excited that they gave Birol a round of applause. The chairman of the board joined in the excitement of the others and said, “You described everything so well, I could have sworn that you were wandering inside the museum.” This was how Birol felt reassured that the game he played was working.
A few days later, after advertisements on the internet, and news reports on the digital opening announced on social media, the museum’s online visiting system went live. Since there was great interest in this new system at first, places for the first days filled up in no time. And even after a few weeks, although the daily visitor allocation did not sell out every day, interest in the tours continued. There was significant interest in this service especially from visitors from different cities and countries.
Before his first digital tour that was going to take place on 8 May, Birol, just like anyone doing their job, did not sense beforehand that strange things would happen on the day. On the tablet in his hand, he switched on the admin console of the tour application at ten to twelve. A while later, the visitors who had registered for the visit would appear in the waiting room, and he would press a button to admit all of them inside. In the early days, he quickly checked the names and images of people taking part in the tour and tried to imagine how the tour was going to go with these people. He didn’t do that on that day. He saw that there were four people who had made an early entry into the digital waiting room. With about five minutes to go to the start of the tour, Birol received a message from the museum director. The director was informing him that the chairman of the museum’s board was going to attend the tour that was about to start with a rich collector who he wanted to add to the advisory board of the museum. Birol took a look at the list. When he saw the name of the chairman of the board, and the image of him waiting at the camera, he felt the need to go to the mirror and check himself one last time. While he checked the list of participants for the rich collector, a few more people had entered the system and taken their place in the waiting room. Looking at the names on the list, he came across one that surprised him: Neşe Serin. Neşe had not turned on her camera. The digital tour system suggested that visitors entered the system with their cameras switched on to have a real museum experience. Visitors who didn’t want that could, naturally, not turn on their cameras. However, when he made a brief introductory speech at the start to explain how the tour worked, Birol especially requested that they turn on their cameras. In this way, along a narrow strip at the top of the page, participants in the tour could both see each other and have a better sense of doing the same thing with others. Was this visitor called Neşe Serin the Neşe who was once Birol’s girlfriend? Did he want to see Neşe, meet her here? For today, he could refrain from suggesting to visitors to turn on their cameras. However, he also knew that the chairman of the board would especially care for the rich collector to have the complete experience, since he would be joining the advisory board with the promise of making large donations. As he contemplated all this, it had already struck twelve o’clock, and the twelve people in the waiting room were waiting for the tour to start.
Birol clicked on a button to start the tour. Now, in the middle of the screen, a video could be seen from the viewpoint of a visitor, touring the ground floor of the museum in slow steps. Birol was in the first frame at the start of the narrow strip at the top of the screen, and the names and images of visitors that connected to the tour lined up next to him one by one. The chairman of the board, to the immediate right of Birol, sat at his desk with a view of the Princes’ Islands. The person called Handan Karaca, right next to him, let out a loud burst of laughter three seconds after the tour had begun. The person next to Handan, called Beste Malik, appeared to be annoyed by this laughter, showed her irritation with an exaggerated jerk, looked away from the screen, and as far as Birol could tell from the light reflected on her face, began to fiddle with her mobile phone. Birol took a swift glance at all the viewer screens. The persons called Handan and Beste were too young to be this rich collector. His eyes met the five people whose cameras were on one by one, he smiled at them, but the cameras of the remaining five were still switched off.
“Hello everyone! Welcome to our guided museum tour. Before you begin to experience our museum with our new digital tour program, I would like to underline a few issues. I will be orienting this tour on your screens. However, using the arrows on your keyboard, you, too, can tour our museum as you wish by going in whichever direction you want, or by approaching works or objects. I would be pleased if you don’t stray too far from the group. I don’t want you getting lost in there.”
Birol made a short break at this point. The last words he said would generally amuse the visitors, and he would hear some of them laugh a little. But when no one reacted at all, he understood that this group had a strange energy. “If you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to ask. You can also click on the arrows you will see on the screen to read further information. And finally, although this is a digital tour, we do recommend that you switch your cameras on, to create a feeling of togetherness in our museum. In that way, we create a different energy as a group” he said, and waited a few seconds. Then he added, “Of course, what counts is that you feel comfortable...” and dropped off on an uncertain note, left his words hanging in the air, but he himself didn’t know why he did that either. All he was actually thinking at that point was whether Neşe would turn on her camera or not. If he were to come face to face with her now, he had no doubt that he would freeze up a bit. After all that they had shared, they hadn’t seen each other for years. During that brief silence, another person turned on their camera, but Neşe’s camera was still off. Just then, the chairman of the board coughed as if he was about to say something. “Does anyone have any questions?” Birol asked.
The chairman of the board leaned over towards the camera of his computer and asked, “Mr. İdris, are you there?” The names of all three visitors with their cameras switched off appeared as ‘unknown user’ on the screen. The chairman of the board had said this to be sure that the collector with whom he would be taking part in the tour was one of those three persons. However, when no one replied, he, too, realized that what he did was strange. Following on the chairman of the board’s question, the person with the screen name İlker, a man in his twenties, asked, “I’m waiting for a friend, too. Irmak, are you there?” When there was no answer again, Handan leaned over to the camera, and said “Your friends seemed to have stood you up” and let out another laughter like the one in the beginning. Birol, in a formal but polite tone, said, “If there is someone you are still waiting for, perhaps you can try to reach them by phone. In the meantime, let’s slowly begin our tour”, wanting to end his introductory talk. However, the chairman of the board said, “Could you wait a minute, please? Let’s not start immediately. I’m calling Mr. İdris now.” Just then, Beste, who had been fiddling with her phone for a while, spoke for the first time and said, “Those who have made it are here, come on, let’s get started...” and loudly slammed the mobile phone in her hand onto the table and fixed her eyes on her computer’s camera. When you talk to someone through a computer screen, you don’t look at the camera but the image of the person you are talking to on the screen, so if someone looks at the camera you get the sense that your eyes have met. Birol had thought about this long and hard when preparing for the digital tour. In fact, looking directly at the camera during video chats had a disconcerting effect. Now, since Beste had fixed her gaze on the camera and was staring right at him, Birol decided that it would only be possible to escape her gaze by starting the tour immediately.
The chairman of the board said, “Ah, Mr. İdris is here after all. Alright, let’s begin,” and hesitating a moment, added, “Mr. İdris, it would be a more pleasurable experience if you switched on your camera, like our guide just said.” There was still no answer from Mr. İdris. After a brief silence, Beste, looking at the camera, grumbled in a low voice, “I wish you would leave Mr. İdris alone...” but it seemed as if she wasn’t aware that this could be heard. Handan let out another burst of laughter. The chairman of the board could only force a smile since Mr. İdris had still not presented himself.
Birol pressed a button to change the image on the screen. “Now I will take you, in sixteen steps, to the first stop of our tour, the reception hall, and along the way, I will tell you the story of the museum,” he said, and began to walk in his flat as if he were walking in the museum. Pressing the OK button, he virtually progressed in the museum, and also followed the route he had drawn himself in his home, walking towards his study. However, he had failed to control his steps, and before finishing his speech, he had already arrived at his study, which he had arranged as the reception hall. If he continued at this speed, he would finish the tour that was supposed to last forty minutes in half the time. Realizing he had to slow down a little, he took a deep breath. In order to gain time, he changed his speech there and said the following: “If we were walking in the museum together towards the reception hall, we would have formed a single line in this narrow corridor. We would be waiting for each other to all arrive in this room to gather. And in the meantime, we would hear the silence of the room, and the sound of our heels on the wooden floor.” Then, to understand what the visitors were busy with, he took a side glance at the visitor screens. He realized that everyone had fixed their gazes on his image on the left upper corner of the screen, and that they were not looking at the screen where the museum image was. In order to draw their attention to the museum, he took a few steps in the reception hall screen, and holding the OK button down, began to turn around in the room.
“Here we are, in the reception hall” said Birol. One of the problems of the digital tour programme was that this rotating motion could sometimes get out of hand and reach a dazzling speed. Suddenly, the room image visible to all began to spin madly.
Beste shouted, “Enough, I’m going to throw up!” Handan let out a laughter again. When Birol stopped the rotating movement at a random point, the visitors saw a flamboyant fireplace before them. In an angry voice she made sure that everyone could hear, Beste said, “You’re always the same, Handan, all you know is to stir up trouble.” Handan replied, “I can’t help it if you’re always so funny!” and everyone sensed that there was more to their conversation.
To fend off the argument, Birol walked towards the bookshelf in his study which he had arranged as a fireplace and began talking. He began his words by saying, “This bookshelf...” but he then immediately corrected himself and said, “I’m sorry, this fireplace...” and continued. In order to talk about the three sculptures on the fireplaces, he had placed three books on the shelf at his eye level with their covers facing him. These books were, Madame Bovary, Ulysses and Faust. As for the fireplace at the museum, there were sculptures by İlhan Koman, Kuzgun Acar and Mari Gerekmezyan placed on its mantelpiece. Looking at these books, Birol told the stories of these sculptures and their artists. When a visitor asked, “What is the name of İlhan Koman’s sculpture?” he replied “Faust” without thinking, but then he had to correct himself by saying, “The Sound of the Devil”.
After these strange mishaps in the first moments Birol gathered himself and narrated the commentary on the rest of the room with greater focus. He reclined on his own corner couch while he told the story of the couches in the room. He entertained the visitors by telling them which famous people, from Marlon Brando to Zeki Müren, had slept on this couch when the museum was still a residence. But immediately after he had said that, he remembered the nights he had spent with Neşe on this couch he was reclining on now in his study. Then, his attention dwindled again, when he thought about what Neşe could be feeling. He immediately stood up and by turning the digital museum image towards the window on the opposite wall, enabled the viewers to look out the window. He began to describe a scene from the film O Beautiful Istanbul directed by Atıf Yılmaz that was shot with this street in the background. He was looking out of the window of his own home as he did this. He then saw two people viciously fighting on the other side of the road. At any other time, he would perhaps call the police, but since he could not do that now, he turned his back and began to walk on.
İlker leaned over towards the camera and said, “I think I’m lost, where are you, I can’t find you”. İlker had probably left the guided tour feature of the application. When Birol asked İlker what he saw around him, he understood from his answer that he had gone up to the second floor. He told İlker that they were still on the first floor, and explained to him how to come downstairs using the diagram on the left of the screen. Then he began to think whether the viewers were bored of him and whether this was the reason they were breaking off from the group to wander alone. When İlker finally rejoined them, they entered the section that had been used as a kitchen for many years and now hosted a temporary photography exhibition. Since Birol didn’t like the works of this photographer, at this stage of the tour, he would enter the kitchen in his flat, pour himself a coffee from the drip coffee maker and go through this part by looking at the notes in front of him. Showing only two of the photographs here, he would advise visitors that they could look at the other photographs themselves if they so wished, and then took a few sips from his coffee without caring whether the tour participants saw this or not. Just when Birol took the coffee cup to his lips, the chairman of the board coughed as if to imply he was about to talk again. Birol then thought it would be disrespectful to the viewers to drink coffee, stopped and looking at the camera, asked, “Does anyone have any questions about this section?”
“Are we allowed to smoke?” asked Handan.
After he replied, “Not while you are in the museum in real life, but of course you can smoke wherever you are now” Birol heard the chairman of the board cough again. He had realized that the chairman of the board was not happy with this answer, but he didn’t know what the correct answer to this question would be.
Birol speeded up unexpectedly, began to walk along the corridor and talk about the few objects there. There was a lightbox on the stand where the corridor turned a corner. There was a black and white nude photograph of a young woman on the box. Birol had given Neşe a postcard copy of this photograph from the museum shop many years ago, with a note he had written on the back of it. He remembered that Neşe loved this postcard a lot, too, and that she had hung it on the wall at the side of her bed. Therefore, in the corridor of his own home, Birol had placed an old pink glass bottle he loved a lot which Neşe had given to him in place of this lightbox. When describing the work in this part of the museum, Birol received help from this bottle:
“This section shows us that we have entered a different zone of our museum, in the emotional sense, that is. Memories of this house, the marks they have left through objects will now catch your eye in a much more personal manner now. We know that the artist of this work visited this house for many years as a lover. One could also perhaps say that her heart was a bit broken. Some of you may know from news in the press that this work, which was last year borrowed by curators from our museum for the artist’s retrospective exhibition in France and sent to France, had to be left out of the exhibition because the artist could not bear to see it in the exhibition. Love can sometimes take us to strange places. When we open our home to others, we also open our love affairs to others. We do not know who the woman in the photograph in front of the pink glass bottle is...” He realized the mistake he had made by saying pink glass bottle instead of box, but Birol didn’t bother correcting it. He continued along the tour and arrived at the first bedroom.
The walls of this room were covered in red velvet, and it had wide windows. Birol stood at the entrance of the room to enable the visitors to take a look, then he entered the room and walked towards the bed. When he was talking about the spectacular wood carvings of the bed, he slowly turned in the opposite direction and showed the painting hanging on the wall. It was then that İlker approached his camera and said, “This was the one I was looking for”.
Birol was encouraged by this comment, “Then you know who this painting is by,” he said to İlker.
İlker gave it a little thought and said, “No.” But then he added, “I know it is the first painting about love that was made in our country.”
Birol softly smiled and told the story of the painting. This was one of Osman Hamdi Bey’s early works and it was, indeed, the first painting with a theme of love made by a painter who lived in these lands and produced paintings in the western sense. The artist had depicted the two lovers on a rowing boat on Kurbağalıdere river in the district of Fenerbahçe. Birol told them how this painting had remained unknown for many years, that it had appeared at a much later date and had become one of the most valuable pieces of this collection.
Impressed by these words, İlker said the following in a slow and timid voice: “I have a lover, her name is Irmak, we have been together since university. She loves this painting a lot... We were going to join this tour together today. She is in her hometown now, she has probably failed to connect because of the weak internet connection there. She had to return to her family home when she couldn’t find work during the pandemic. If the pandemic hadn’t intervened, I was actually going to visit the museum with Irmak and propose to her in front of this painting...”
Before İlker could finish his sentence, a voice was heard exclaiming, “İlker! What on earth are you doing?”
Birol realized that this was the voice of one of the unknown users whose cameras were switched off. Before anyone could comment, the same user said, “My mother is with me, what do I do now?” And immediately after that, one of the unknown users in the top section of the screen left the digital tour.
First there was a silence. Birol did not know what to say. Then, he managed to bring himself to tell İlker, “We would be delighted to welcome you and Irmak to our museum once the pandemic is over.”
After waiting a few seconds as if he had frozen, İlker said, “I must apologize to you profusely, now... This is terrible, I mean, her family didn’t know we were lovers, I thought Irmak wasn’t here, well, let me ask for your permission to leave now,” and left the tour.
Just when Birol was contemplating how to continue the tour, the chairman of the board spoke up.
“It’s such a shame,” he said, “young people have it so hard. The pandemic on the one hand, and unemployment on the other. I wonder if the museum administration should send some flowers to Ms. Irmak’s family?” he added, coming up with a suggestion.
Although Birol didn’t think the idea made sense, he managed to bring himself to comment, “I will make sure the relevant department of the museum is made aware of the matter”. He thought the matter was now over and that there would be no more comments when Beste began to speak, gazing at the camera.
“Sir, I don’t think you understood what just happened. Who knows how the girl’s family will react now? Who are you to intervene in the lives of young people in this way? Whose sending flowers to who? Do you think we are in Europe?” snapped Beste.
The chairman of the board was taken aback by this sudden outburst and could only manage to mumble the words, “Ermmm... I... I happen to be the chairman of the board...”.
Beste interrupted him and said, “Fine, I am the chairman of the board, too, of the Moda Neighbourhood Improvement Association, no less! But I don’t go around smartmouthing everyone just because of that,” showing she wanted over with this conversation. Handan let out another long laughter. Beste was now angry with Handan, too, and shouted at her, “Enough with that, what are you laughing at!”
Handan, as if she had been waiting for Beste to say this to her for a long time, took the cue and said, “If half the shops in the neighbourhood hadn’t closed down, you could never have become the chairman of the board or anything.”
Beste got angrier, shouted, “I’m not wasting my time with you, why don’t you tell the people here what kind of person you are, that would make a proper museum tour!” and hastily left the tour.
The chairman of the board felt the need to make an explanation to intervene in this uncontrollable wave of anger.
“Sorry, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I am the chairman of the board of this museum. We are doing our best to support our museum during these hard times. I did not want to cause a misunderstanding.”
Handan said, “Pay her no mind, she’s just annoyed at seeing me here. We are neighbours. She’s on bad terms with everyone here as well”. Then, one of the unknown users who hadn’t said anything up to this point spoke. Birol gathered that this person who pronounced her words slowly, one by one, was an elderly person.
“My dears, I’m joining you from New York. I got up at four in the morning to take part in this tour. How wonderful, I said to myself, a live tour in my homeland! But I see now that the people there won’t ever change, fighting all the time, arguing all the time, bickering all the time. What a wonderful application, I thought at first... But why do you spoil it like this... I’m joining you in the dead of the morning from thousands of kilometres away. All this is so upsetting...”
Birol, thinking that he should now take matters under control, spoke up: “Please accept my apologies. I apologize to you because of this unpleasant situation.”
The elderly woman begun to speak once again, “My dear son, why are you apologizing, it’s not your fault, you were doing fine...”
Although he said that they could now continue the tour and that there were parts of the museum they hadn’t seen yet, Birol actually felt that he did not want this tour he was guiding to continue. His only real wish was for everyone to leave the tour, for only Neşe to remain, for her to switch on her camera and for them to chat to each other.
The chairman of the board then spoke again and talked about the difficulties they had faced after the pandemic began and how they had reached a great number of visitors thanks to this digital exhibition tour. When he added that they had never come across an unpleasant situation like this before, the elderly woman began to talk by saying, “My child!” and said it had to do with young people in America not experiencing love in an innocent manner like they do in Turkey. Birol didn’t actually want to comment on anything right now. For a moment he thought of switching off the tour using the administration panel and then telling the chairman of the board that there was an infrastructure problem. But if after all this, there was to be an infrastructure problem, too, the museum management might just decide to cancel this newly-introduced tour program.
As Birol was thinking about all this, the chairman of the board called out to Mr. İdris again, asking “...are you still here?” This time, Mr. İdris switched on his microphone and told that he would like to visit the museum at the earliest opportunity, with the chairman of the board. At that moment, Birol realized that the visitor account from which Mr. İdris was speaking was Neşe’s. If the person attending the visit, when entering the system, did not indicate a name, then he or she participated in the tour with the name of the device’s owner. And since Mr. İdris had connected to the tour with the computer that belonged to the user named Neşe Serin, he had appeared with this screen name from the very start. When Mr. İdris announced that he had to leave the tour for a meeting – Birol was sure that this was a lie - the chairman of the board said, “Best regards to your wife Mrs. Neşe!”. Since Birol knew that the Neşe he knew was not married, he then realized that this had merely been a case of a similarity of names. This Neşe Serin was not only the person Birol knew, but the person named Neşe hadn’t even taken part in this tour. Birol’s strange excitement he had felt regarding Neşe since the beginning of the tour ended in such an absurd manner. When Mr. İdris thanked everyone and left the tour, the chairman of the board did the same right after him. As this happened, two other visitors had also left the tour.
Now, Handan, the elderly lady and an unknown user seemed to be continuing the tour. There was a brief silence. Handan laughed out loud. Birol smiled for a moment, then said this to the visitors: “We have very little time left. But it should be enough for me to take you to my favourite place in the museum.”
With these three persons, Birol, taking digital steps, climbed to the second floor of the museum. He had also arrived in front of a sofa in his own sitting room. This was Birol’s favourite place in his flat. He went to the front of an old sofa in the museum and first showed that sofa. Then, sitting at the sofa in his flat, he also turned the camera in the museum to show the blank wall opposite the sofa in the museum. Now, Birol was looking at the blank wall in his house while the visitors on the tour also stared at the blank wall in the museum. Then, Birol began to talk, letting go of the illusion that he was in the museum at that moment:
“From early on during the pandemic, I have sat and gazed at this blank wall at home for so long that, I think this wall has somehow begun to open up onto another dimension where I can see both the past and the future. In the early days, I considered hanging something on this wall, then I thought whether I should fix a shelf and put some flowers on it. I also thought of changing the wall’s colour. But I did none of that. Looking at this blank wall for days on end felt so satisfying to me after a point that sometimes I sit here and look at this blank wall for hours. I could never imagine that I would be able to see so much looking at this blank wall you see right now in the museum. I don’t know how many of the things I told you about today you actually managed to see, but after all, we now see everything in a different light. That is why I still don’t know how to do this guided tour thing. Thank you for taking part in the tour. I hope it will be possible one day to welcome you at the museum. A good day to you all.”