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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Museum … Using Humor to Communicate

There’s an old adage in education that you shouldn’t smile until Christmas. I’ve never been able to make it work. I couldn’t stand to go that long without a laugh!

Every now and then, however, my class and I visit a museum where this rule is alive and well. We’re greeted at the door by dour-faced volunteers who quickly make it clear that we’re not to talk, run, wander, or have any fun. After all, museums are serious places — their collections are priceless … or historic … or endangered … or, well, you get the idea. Oh, I’m aware that you have to let the kids know you mean business, but I’ve always believed you could catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That’s why I think humor should be tucked into every docent’s bag-of-tricks along with the touch items and the well-structured questions.

Tell Stories, Not Jokes

On his deathbed, Fred Allen (or was it W.C. Fields?) is supposed to have said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” It will help a docent trying to put humor into a tour to remember that humor and comedy aren’t the same thing. If you tell jokes, the students will want to, too. Another danger in telling jokes is the fact that few people can tell them well, and there’s nothing deader than the dead air that follows a punch line with no punch.

On the other hand, a docent tour presents many opportunities for humorous stories. In a history museum or historic house, funny stories exist about even the most serious of subjects. Curators and other visitors do funny things that a docent can share with her audience to help put them at ease.

A group of teenage boys was looking with me at a horse-drawn hearse. We had talked about the changing burial customs of our community, and I was fascinated by the boys’ interest. Finally, one remarked that he would really have liked to he the driver of such a vehicle.

“That’s interesting, ” I responded.

“You don ‘t think you would feel a little uncomfortable driving a corpse around?”

“No, ” he answered, “I’d just turn up the volume on my boom box.” Stories about historic people and places don’t have to be “knee-slappers;” they just need to put some humanity into the flesh and blood people who make up our history. However, they should be told with respect. Humorous stories should also be relevant. I once had the misfortune to encounter an art museum docent who become so involved in telling “hilarious” stories about Van Gogh’s insanity that she totally forgot to mention his brilliance.

Laugh with them, not at them

The best way to put humor into a tour is to relax. Be willing to laugh at yourself and to let students laugh with you. It might help an audience who’s having trouble “connecting” with a particular piece of abstract art to know that it was once hung upside down. A group awed by the austere trappings of the historic home you’re touring might be comforted by the thought that you got lost the first time you led a tour.

One of the docents in a history museum was trying out some role playing and visualization techniques. After looking at the clothing exhibit, she asked a group of third graders to imagine that they were riding around our small town at the turn-of-the-century on top of the elaborate hat in the exhibit.

“What do you think you’d see if you were the bird on this lady’s hat?” she asked.

“Well, ” one of the youngsters replied in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’d see much, ’cause that bird is dead!”

Letting an audience laugh at you, however, doesn’t give you license to laugh at them. A glaring error {Horrors, the elderly man with the gray hat just mispronounced Magritte ‘s name!) may be cause for a kind, but not condescending, smile, and a correction within the context of the tour, but never for laughter. Control your impulse to share a knowing wink with a classroom teacher when one of her charges tells you that kangaroos live in cereal boxes. Children may miss a lot of what you say during a tour, but they never miss it if you make fun of them!

Be sensitive to political correctness. “PC” may be getting a bad name, but a joke at someone else’s expense isn’t funny. If you do accidentally hurt someone’s feelings, apologize. While it’s true that some children like to be teased, most don’t. It’s a dangerous practice with groups you don’t know well. Sarcasm, too, can be lethal. While it’s often funny and usually okay with adults, sarcasm should never be used with children. It more often embarrasses than entertains.

Pick appropriate humor

The development of concepts of humor, like other methods of communication, changes as children grow. Since much humor, for example, is verbal, children must have appropriate vocabularies to understand jokes, puns, irony, and even some humorous stories. If a funny story is based on incongruity, children must have reached a specific level of development to understand differences in everything from size to social roles to get the joke. The pre-schooler is entertained by both pleasure (a direct physical response to something such as being tickled) or curiosity. Pre-schoolers find anything funny that is strange or unusual to them – – the baboon’s behind or the large nose on a Rembrandt model. Noises or grimaces made by both the child and others, slapstick situations, the funny antics of animals, and surprise and suspense are elements of great fun for children in the early stages of the development of humor. “Be a clown” could be the theme song for teachers of this age group.

Concrete, literal humor continues with most children through age 11 or so. Humor is “corny,” and misbehavior and minor accidents are cause for much hilarity. Stories about people who defy authority or dignified people who lose their dignity are great hits with this age group. It is this age, perhaps, that Phyllis Diller was speaking of when she defined humor as “tragedy revisited.” Children at this age will laugh at anything when others do so, whether it is funny or not. Giggles, like measles, are highly contagious.

By age 12, humor begins to change. Pre-teens and early adolescents, because of their greater understanding of language, enjoy word-based humor, especially if it is based on forbidden subjects such as sex. Practical jokes are very popular, as is teasing and some banter with adults. The beginning of an appreciation of sarcasm also marks this stage of development, but it is usually not well developed enough to use as a source of fun. Humor, at this age especially, can easily get out of hand if you don’t have good tour management skills and a good grasp of the subject.

By age 15, youngsters are beginning to be able to laugh at themselves and to see something funny when they are teased. They begin to understand irony, satire, and other more subtle forms of humor. With these young adults, and with adult audiences, docents should keep in mind that nothing is funny in and of itself. Whether or not we perceive something as funny depends on the meanings we associate with it. Reactions to humor depend upon the mood and emotions of an individual at the time of the humorous event. Sometimes your story falls flat, not because it isn’t funny, but because the teenager hearing it just broke up with her boyfriend, or the adult hearing it had a tough time finding a parking place.

Remember – Scrooge is lurking

Unfortunately, some people grow up without a sense of humor. They will not laugh at your funny stories; they will stare blankly at your clever use of irony. Even worse, they will question your use of humor in a museum tour. (After all, don’t you remember that the stuff here is priceless … or historic … or endangered?) Fortunately, research comes to your rescue — people with no sense of humor usually have a overly-developed appreciation of authority. In a number of studies, humor and laughter have been shown to help students develop divergent thinking skills, retain factual information longer, and learn to take risks. Also, humor is an important way to build teacher-student rapport, to demonstrate to students (especially adolescents) that teachers are real people. When teachers told self-deprecating stories, they usually gained, not lost, their students’ respect. And, knowing teachers have made mistakes and lived to tell about it, helps students feel more comfortable about their own mistakes.

Have fun

The best experiences of humor are spontaneous. Humorous stories can be learned prior to a tour, comic art or funny animal behaviors can be planned as part of a tour, but, the very definition of humor means that much of it must happen without planning. Just be relaxed and enjoy funny situations when they do occur. Share with other docents the humorous experiences you encounter during your tours. The best way for you and your audience to enjoy your job is to “laugh it off.”

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Museum…Using Humor to Communicate,” The Docent Educator 5.3 (Spring 1996): 18-19.

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