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A Framework for Organizing Theme-Based, Inquiry Tours

You have researched your newest exhibition for months, amassing extensive material on each work of art. The opening is quickly approaching and you, as a docent or gallery teacher, need to be prepared to tour the exhibition. This tour will not be a lecture in which you regurgitate the volumes of information you have acquired to a passive audience. Instead, it will focus on the exchange of information, the give-and-take of questioning and answering, the discoveries made through discussion. How do you translate hundreds of pages of information into a succinct, sixty-minute, interactive tour? This is a question we all have faced.

This article suggests one solution to this problem by summarizing a tool called the Tour Framework Worksheet. You can use this Worksheet to organize an enormous amount of information into a flexible, theme-based tour that identifies the artwork in the exhibition, supplies important points about these works, and connects these main points back to the overall theme of the tour, while promoting questioning and leaving room for transitions between artworks. This tool functions in a very simple, straightforward way, and like any other effective tool, it is a flexible one that is open to modification according to your particular institution, collections, or exhibitions.

The Tour Framework Worksheet consists of eleven pages that can assist you in organizing your tour. On the cover sheet, the first directions indicate a space to write the theme of the tour and then list ten works of art that articulate this theme. Following the theme sheet is a page titled “Artwork 1,” which is divided into five sections. The first section asks for the artist, title, medium, and date of the work. The second section focuses on the main points to relay about this artwork or have your audience self-discover during conversation around the object. In the third section, attention shifts to how these main points relate back to the overall theme, listed on the cover sheet. The fourth section designates space to list important questions to ask about this work of art. Finally, the fifth section provides an opportunity to detail the transition from this artwork to the next included in the tour. This segment works as a vehicle to move you the next page, titled “Artwork 2” which is identical to the former page. There is one of these pages for each of the ten works of art included in the tour. Taking the time to fill in the worksheet from what you have learned through research and training ensures a theme-based tour that identifies the artwork, articulates the important pieces of information about the works, connects these ideas back to the theme, and builds in questioning techniques and transition from one artwork to the next. By using this tool, you establish the basic information and format of your tour before you even step into the galleries to start touring.

The Theme: The Root of All Inquiries

Once you have decided on a theme for your tour, it is important to summarize the theme in a few succinct sentences. Recording the theme as the first piece of information on the worksheet keeps it at the forefront of the tour from which all else proceeds. Also, having a specific place to write the theme of the tour requires a well thought-out and developed focus.

As an example, let us use the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center’s permanent collection, which consists mainly of paintings by European artists spanning the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. We will use the theme of how lighting and color affect mood in an artwork. After determining the theme, you can select a number of works to communicate this idea by listing the artist and title of those objects under the theme. Whether you support the concept of touring eight to ten works of art in an hour-long tour or only cover three in that same of time, this practice requires narrowing down all the work in the exhibition to a few representative objects by taking into account how strongly each artwork supports the theme, probably one of the most difficult components of the worksheets.

Once you have decided on the artwork you will discuss, you can establish the order in which you will examine these objects, considering placement of the works of art and movement through the galleries. By laying out the ten works of art on the tour, you can see if the selection of artworks lends itself to smooth transitions and an even representation of the exhibition or collection. For example, if all the chosen works are by male artists and half of the works in the exhibition are by women artists, listing the artworks makes it clear that it might be appropriate to include a more balanced portrayal in order to depict the exhibition in a more thorough and accurate manner. With the theme sheet completed, you can move on to the bulk of the worksheet, which focuses on the identified artworks you will explore on the tour.

The Basics: One Artwork at a Time

The first part of the individual “Artwork” sheets asks for the “vitals” of the object: artist, title, medium, and date. In examining the UCLA Hammer Museum’s collection, we will discuss Rembrandt van Rijn’s Juno, an oil painting from 1662-1665. The second section requests the “main points” to relay about the artwork, followed by a few numbered lines. One important piece of information about the work is recorded on each line (three or four in total). For Rembrandt’s Juno, the information on the first line clarifies who Juno is (the goddess of such things as marriage, the state, and wealth). The second line explains how your audience can identify Juno by examining the “attributes” that are portrayed and how to read them in this painting. On the third line, the story behind the artwork is expressed; it was commissioned by a rich banker, which is connect to the subject matter ofJuno as the goddess of wealth. On the fourth line, an introduction and definition of Rembrandt’s use of “chiaroscuro” (the use of light and dark areas to create and imply contour and form) is described through observing the limited palette and sharp contrasts between light and shadow.

Establishing these main points entails narrowing down an enormous amount of information to a few significant pieces of knowledge that will be at the core of the inquiry around this artwork. By breaking the object down into a small number of comprehensive facts, the essentials of the artwork become easy to remember for both the docent and the public. With this approach, even in a conversation that digresses, the main points remain at the forefront of the questioning strategies.

The third section asks for this artwork’s connection to the overall basis of the tour — how do those main points about this specific artwork tie into the tour’s theme? For Juno, the issue of Rembrandt’s dark palette and use of chiaroscuro directly refer to the theme’s investigation of light and color. By focusing on this link, you can better create a solid, cohesive tour that flows from the theme and applies to each work.

This section guides you toward making a logical, conscious correlation among all the objects you explore and their relevance to each other as well as the overarching theme.

Creating Questions and Moving On

At this point, you have laid out all the basic information about the artwork that you want to include on the tour. Now, you can move to the fourth section by considering important questions to ask about this piece. The questions here are not general questions that could be included in a discussion around any work of art, but are inquiries specific to this one object. In reviewing the most pertinent points of information listed above, you can create questions around those ideas to assist the group in reaching these bits of knowledge or to push the group beyond these basic pieces of information. For instance, when looking at Juno, certain questions might assist your audience in discovering the technique of chiaroscuro. “Where on the canvas is your eye drawn? How does Rembrandt draw your attention to these areas?” Laying out a few specific questions in advance helps you plan how to approach each artwork and draw information out of your audience.

Section five of the worksheet asks for a transition idea or statement to move the group from this artwork to the next work on the tour. Transitions can be quite simple; they certainly do not have to be deep, profound connections. For moving from Rembrandt’s Juno to Jean- Antoine Watteau’s Festivities in Honor of Pan, 1710-1711, the next painting on our tour in the museum’s collection, we can examine the comparison between the two artists’ use of light and shadow or the contrast of Watteau’s more colorful palette versus Rembrandt’s darker color scheme. These simple links help your audience change mindsets from one object to the next, while creating a smooth. cohesive movement through the galleries, tying the whole tour together.


In summary, the Tour Framework Worksheet is a simple tool that you can use to organize your thoughts and information into a well-thought-out, unified tour. By starting with the theme of the tour, moving through the specific works to be included on the tour, and then focusing on each of these objects individually, you can clearly establish all the information and questioning strategies to incorporate on an interactive tour. There are many applications for the Worksheet beyond art museum galleries. It can be used in a variety of other institutions — historic houses, science museums, and even zoos and gardens. The format of the Worksheet itself is also extremely flexible. It would be easy to expand or add sections to the existing form. Overall, the Tour Framework Worksheet can serve as a rubric to create a succinct, stimulating, interactive tour with the theme at the center, moving you from a sea of books and information to a well thought-through journey.

Robyn Murgio works at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA. As the education assistant, she coordinates both the volunteer and student decent programs, in addition to assisting with teacher training and adult programs. Ms. Murgio also serves as the Public Relations Chairperson for the Museum Educators of Southern California.

Murgio, Robyn. “A Framework for Organizing Theme-Based, Inquiry Tours,” The Docent Educator9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 6-8.


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