A special challenge for docents at the Walker Art Center is a schedule of rapidly changing exhibitions. This emphasis on a changing exhibition schedule means that our docents need to not only learn the basic information about the works on view, but also arrive at some effective ways of incorporating those objects into an effective, cohesive, and exciting tour. In many ways, it seems to require almost superhuman abilities!
Because of the always changing layout of our galleries, and the works within those spaces, much ot our docents’ educational opportunities consists of walk-through tours of special exhibitions with a curator. Granted, the guides welcome, and truly enjoy, occasions to learn in depth about a new exhibition. However, these walk-through sessions rarely give them specific insights into how to actually tour an exhibition. Rather they focus on the art historical aspects of the work, the challenges curators faced in organizing the exhibition, and, because we are a contemporary art institution, occasionally provide insight into the challenges of working with living artists. Fascinating information, all, but not extremely useful when attempting to get an elementary school child excited about conceptual art!
Due to these obstacles, and a desire to make sure our guides know how to tour some of the admittedly challenging work that we display, we have come up with some different methods to help guides think about exhibitions, as well as some new ways to tour them.
The Initial Walk-Through
The first step when opening a new exhibition is the curator-led walk-through. These sessions usually consist of a 2- to 3-hour in-depth tour of the exhibition. The curator provides an overview of the show, the reason the work is being exhibited in this particular context, and detailed information on many, if not all, of the pieces on display. Docents receive copies of the label text, and if there is an exhibition catalogue, they receive this as well as any related articles to supplement their education. I will intentionally refer to these walkthrough sessions as “education” rather than “training,” in an effort to highlight the differences.
I think it is important to mention that we hold these sessions twice, once in the morning and once in the evening, so we can make certain that as many guides as possible attend, including our weekend/evening docents. Of course, it’s extremely beneficial to have curators who are willing to conduct the session twice, or at least a capable intern who can step into that role. We also video or audio tape all of our training sessions, and docents are encouraged to check out these tapes and use them for review purposes.
Follow-Up Idea Exchange
Since the curatorial walkthrough focuses on factual information about the work, but not necessarily how to organize a tour of that work in an effective manner, we usually follow the initial education session with an idea exchange, or what we call a “follow-up salon.” Our exhibition walk-through sessions are usually held on Mondays when the museum is closed and we hold our salons on the following Friday over the lunch hour. This schedule makes it possible for docents who have given tours of the exhibition between Monday’s walk-through and the Friday salon to share with others their experiences touring the works.
These informal gatherings provide a chance for tour guides to get together and exchange ideas about touring a particular exhibition. In anticipation of the salon, I usually prepare a short handout with information for suggested themes and related artworks, as well as questions for discussion. However, guides often have great ideas or questions themselves that we then add to this list. Since the docents have usually had several days to digest their experience with the exhibition, or at least information from the walkthrough, they often arrive at the salon ready to offer some extremely thought-provoking questions.
They also share their reactions to the work, and will suggest items to be added to our prop/visual resources supply. This is often one of the only chances the docents have to get together on an informal basis and to hash out some of the questions and issues that come with giving tours. I believe that most of the guides who attend these sessions leave feeling much more confident, and that they have some solid ideas and tools for touring any particular show.
Tour Planning Notebook
Attendance at our follow-up salon is optional, with usually 20 – 30% of docents participating. However, it is important to disseminate, or at least make available, the valuable information that was gathered at this get-together to those who were unable to attend. This is where a “Tour Planning Notebook” or other type of information center becomes a useful tool.
With the opening of each new exhibition, a small number of docents, usually 2 or 3, works together to compile a binder full of ideas for giving tours of the current exhibition. The notebook contains basic information about the works, such as label copy, reviews, and articles about the artists.
However, also incorporated into the binder are notes from the Friday “salon.” Such notes include suggestions for tour themes and associated open-ended questions, a list of props that might be useful, and suggestions about how and where to use them, and a pronunciation guide for some of the names or terms that might be unfamiliar. In addition, and very importantly, we keep at the back of the binder a “comment section” where the guides can write in ideas about giving tours, including those questions or techniques that were successful (or that were not!) and questions for their fellow guides.
The notebook is a great place to compile articles and reviews that may have come out following the initial education session, as the binder can be continually updated through the course of an exhibition. Traditionally, it has been difficult for our weekend/ evening guides to make contact with the weekday guides. The binder provides a vehicle for them to communicate, ask each other questions, and learn of each other’s tour techniques.
Finally, we encourage docents to follow one another’s tours, or to get together on an informal basis and walk through an exhibition together. This can be a great way for guides to exchange thoughts, ask questions of one another, and observe how someone else “does it.” It’s important to remember that in all situations, the docents themselves can be a source of valuable information and splendid ideas.
Docents need both education and training. The intellectual stimulus that continuing education provides is essential for maintaining an interested, enthusiastic, and informed docent corps. Making an effort to incorporate training into your docent program can help cultivate docents who are engaged and engaging, and who are skilled at giving effective and educational tours.
Simply providing factual information is rarely enough to ensure good, participatory tours. It is essential to encourage guides to ask questions, exchange ideas, and think about approaching exhibitions in different ways. By using techniques such as informal idea exchanges or planning books, a museum staff member can help to ensure that the tour guides are doing more on their tours than simply repeating the information disseminated by curators. Reviewing Tips for Effective Education and Training
If possible, offer exhibition education sessions more than once. By holding sessions at multiple times, it is more likely that as many of your docents as possible can attend. In addition, you may be able to attract a more diverse group of volunteers by offering a more flexible training schedule. (People often notice that the Walker Art Center’s docent corps includes many more young professionals, men, and people of color than do other institutions.)
Also, offer opportunities for docents to “follow-up” the initial exhibition education. It is important for guides to have a chance to get together and discuss their reactions to an exhibition, as well as hear feedback from other docents.
Create a “resource center.” This can be as simple as a box or file drawer. The center can serve as a place where guides can go for further information, to pick up visual resources to use on their tours, and keep an “idea exchange” notebook handy for sharing ideas with others.
Use the docents themselves. The docent corps can be an incredibly effective resource tool. Encourage docents to follow one another’s tours, or simply try and get together with each other and walk through the exhibition together. Ask them for suggestions for props or other follow-up training ideas.
Lara Roy is the program manager, Tour Programs at Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, MN, where she works with 85 “well-trained” docents. Prior to working at Walker Art Center, Ms. Roy taught art history and touring techniques to the docents-in-training at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Roy, Lara. “Education versus Training,” The Docent Educator 12.1 (Autumn 2002): 14-15+.