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A Tie that Binds: The Thematic Tour

There are times when a decent has a certain degree of latitude in teaching about the objects or artifacts on a guided tour. In other situations, however, a docent’s choices can be more limited. This may occur for many reasons, including the audience’s level of awareness, the docent’s own comfort level with the subject matter, or a lack of adequate accompanying documentation about the objects in question. These are appropriate times for thematic tours. Focusing on an aspect of an exhibition rather than on its entirety can provide an enriching tour, give visitors something to think about, and present information within a solid structure that can be appreciated by the museum staff, docent, and visitor alike.

Consider, for example, an ethnographic collection — that which displays a large number and variety of articles, such as furniture, clothing, toys, tools, machines, folk art, and so forth. First, the docent selects some aspect shared in common that will tie these different objects together. Among them could be: their shape, the materials they are made of, their function, or the meanings that can be inferred from them. Then, once the docent makes a choice, these objects must be reviewed from that perspective.

To continue our example, let’s examine an object using the theme of “materials.” The object is a small wooden casket dating from the last century. How can the material it’s made of tell us something of the society and resources of the people who produced it? The material of the casket, in this case wood, was drawn from a natural source and underwent relatively little transformation. By noting that the craftsmen of the last century drew upon local resources, and only slightly transformed their natural materials when fashioning the casket, we might reasonably infer that their way of life was, relatively speaking, less complex and closer to nature than our own. By comparison, had it been made of plastic, it would have had to go through a complete chemical transformation from crude petroleum into another material — plastic. The process that changes petroleum into plastic requires the presence of several different industries, is far more complex, and results in a product that is far more transformed and altered from its natural state.

A discussion of this type can take docent and visitor well beyond the presentation of information provided by the museum. And, there need not be the presence of a plastic box alongside the wooden one. Rather, the docent appeals to the visitors’ general knowledge of a vast number of everyday products made of plastic. By referring to what visitors already know, and especially by encouraging them to compare this knowledge with what is on display, the docent stimulates participation, intellectual engagement, and the imagination.

Let’ s try another example using a different theme, that of “meaning,” or the message an object conveys. A pearl and lace fan might speak of the lifestyle of a woman in a higher social class, or of trade and commerce; the metal cross from a church steeple would indicate the presence of a place of Christian worship and settlement patterns; and eating utensils might bespeak economic class, craftsmanship, and social mores. All of these objects, whether symbolic or utilitarian, reveal a lot about the owner and the society of the people who produced and used them.

One of the best aspects of touring with a theme is that whether items are displayed together or not is of little importance. The docent draws connections using the theme to create a well-structured tour and a unifying factor.

Many exhibitions nowadays use posters, audiovisual equipment, computers, design (layout, lighting, etc.) and other such museographical elements. Just like the objects exhibited, these too can be incorporated by the docent to illustrate a tour’s theme. Because docents sometimes find themselves working with minimal supervision, they must develop methods that they can accomplish for themselves. Thematic tours permit them to do this. Before any visitors arrive, docents can identify the most productive or “high-yield” aspects of the exhibition in order to convey the principal idea of the exhibition and to meet the visitors’ desire to discover something new.

The thematic approach also allows docents to tackle topics that, at first glance, seem more difficult — such as the role or mission of their museum. The capacity of the thematic approach for provoking thought and for creating awareness can be used by the docent to help visitors better understand why the museum collects as it does.

Even the idea of having a collection can make a successful theme. Museums have collections, but so do people.
Children may collect dolls or model cars; adults may collect antiques or coins. Though a museum’s collection can often diversify into a vast assortment of objects, a theme helps to knit them together. The different items are then set into a context, enriching the learning, knowledge that can be derived, and insight of the curators, while giving rise to new questions that can pave the way for new research. (This is an idea advanced by Cecile Dubuc in an internal memorandum circulated within the Musee de la Civilisation in Quebec City.) In addition, by discussing the objectives of the museum’s collection policy, docents can lead visitors to a better understanding of the museum’s raison d’etre, as well as its role in the community.

A docent constructs a thematic visit, first by choosing at least one theme that will best correspond to the topics most likely to interest the visitor. Then, he must choose the appropriate components of his presentation, wherever they are found within the exhibition. The relevance of a well-chosen theme in creating a unifying thread can even allow the docent to guide visitors through more than one wing, gallery, or exhibition area.

To sum up, then, to create and use a thematic tour, put these principles into practice:

• Choose themes, objects, and questions carefully.
• Select themes that best correspond to the interest of your visitors.
• Formulate an introduction and conclusion.
• Give a short summary of your theme at the beginning of the tour.

If you do these things you will have built a cohesive and interesting presentation. In addition, you will project a solid image of yourself as an educator even in an exhibition that may be a bit short on documentation, or with which you feel somewhat less than at ease.

Daniel Arcand has been a docent at the Musee de la Civilisation in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, for over four years. Prior to this, he was a docent for eight years at the Place-Royale interpretation site, where Quebec City was founded in 1608 and which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. Mr. Arcand holds B.A. degrees in both history and translation.

Arcand, Daniel. “A Tie that Binds: The Thematic Tour,” The Docent Educator 3.1 (Autumn 1993): 16.

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