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An International Overview of Art Docents

As part of my recently Completed dissertation, I conducted an international survey of the role of voluntary gallery guides in art museums. The results are discussed in this article.

Who Are We?

Of the twenty-nine respondents to the international questionnaire, all indicated that the vast majority of their voluntary guides were between forty and sixty years of age, with a small number of younger members. Although some had as many as 2% male members, most had only female guides. Most participants indicated that their members were drawn from a variety of socioeconomic groups, bringing a broad base of expertise and experiences to their service.

Voluntary guiding used to be almost universally the domain of nonworking women — that is of women who did no paid work outside of their homes — but today that has changed greatly. Many guides now hold full-time or part-time jobs, and many more are people who. being retired from their major life’s work, are able to bring a great variety of expertise to the art museum.

At the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where I serve, the thirty respondents included eight who had earned Bachelor of Arts degrees, seven Bachelor of Fine Arts, four Bachelor of Science, two Diplomas in Nursing, eight Diplomas in Education, eleven Diplomas in Art Studies, and twenty-six who had completed or were continuing “History of Art” courses at Technical and Further Education Schools.

What keeps such a diverse group of capable people doing what they do for no tangible reward? The answer lies in the fact that gallery guiding is a very personal commitment. Of the guides surveyed 50% said they joined the guides because it was a way to work with people, a way to turn their personal commitment to art into a useful community service. It is the small child who arrives at the gallery hostile and disruptive, but leaves wanting to “bring my mum to see this stuff,” that keeps many gallery guides doing what they do!

The results that follow give some indication of the expectations and perceived rewards of voluntary gallery guides.

When you joined the guides did you think it would be:

answer respondents
a good way to learn more about art                    19
interesting 19
a way to meet people with similar interests 14
useful community service 13
a way to fulfill a commitment to art 10
an opportunity to work with children 7
fun 6
a good training course 5

Gallery guiding has evolved to embrace some new groups among its ranks that in the past would have been considered only in the role of audience. Among these are students and artists of various kinds, and graduate teachers-in-service who take up the opportunities offered by gallery training programs to hone their skills for future careers. For instance, to help relieve the burden on over-loaded docents during a very popular exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work as an engineer and architect, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Canada enlisted several university engineering students as guides. One United States report noted that a number of museums were using paid or unpaid volunteer college students as “interpreters,” while one state museum was using graduate and undergraduate students to take primary school tours.


Even as long ago as 1938 the Carnegie Corporation gave a grant to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to employ artists as guides to conduct tours for children. In Britain in 1961, art students taking a teacher’s diploma at the London College of Art were required, as part of their museum studies, to take an introductory course of six visits at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Those students who then selected museum work as an elective study worked with children for one-half day each week in the museum as voluntary teachers.

In many galleries worldwide the tour guides are paid, part-time lecturers on contract. In the case of one modem art museum in New York, the volunteers are not tour guides. They are used purely in an associate role where they welcome groups, provide brief orientations to the museum, and answer questions from visitors. At that museum paid, contracted lecturers give all the gallery talks, and “teaching artists” conduct tours for secondary school children and general gallery visitors.

Another American museum had a group of volunteers called “Chamberlains” who supplemented the work of docents. They began their service as unpaid guards, but as they pursued their security duties began to learn about the museum collections, form study groups, and respond to visitors’ questions. It is interesting to note that a gallery in Liverpool, England, has a service similar to this offering the help of “Information Assistants” who work alongside the gallery attendants.

Selection and Training

Candidates for training as guides at the Art Gallery of Western Australia are usually recruited by word of mouth. To avoid the danger of “cloning ourselves,” various alternative methods of recruitment have sought to attract new members from a wider cross section of the community. Newspaper advertisements, radio and television talks, and articles in journals have been used. While these routes did bring in large numbers of prospective recruits, most failed to stay the distance. Ninety percent of the galleries surveyed worldwide had come to the same conclusion, finding their best guides were recruited by friends who were already serving as guides.

Applicants for the program at the Art Gallery of Western Australia are interviewed by those who will be most closely involved with their training, that is the guides serving as Training Officers for that year, the incumbent guide president and secretary, the senior Education Officer, and one or more education staff members.

At another Australian gallery, paid staff interview applicants on the same basis as applicants for full-time, paid positions, assuming responsibilities for both hiring and firing are the same for all personnel, regardless of pay status. The gallery guides in this institution are considered to be part-time staff and the fact that they are not paid does not affect their professional status in any way.

Applicants at the Art Gallery of Western Australia are assessed for their strengths in several main areas. Previous study of art history is not considered essential if the candidate is prepared to undertake such a course offered at the Technical and Further Education Colleges in Perth. Much more important than knowledge of art history to a potential guide is the ability to communicate in an engaging manner, to transmit personal enthusiasm for the subject to other people.

The goal of training courses for gallery guides everywhere is to transform a varied group of individuals with a wide range of expertise and personalities into a co-operative team of para-professional translators of art to the general public. It is not to produce art historians or critics, but rather to nurture these trainees to become agents capable of talking about the gallery’s collection to its visitors in their own language.

Of the twenty-nine international galleries surveyed, all conducted training courses similar in structure and content to that of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Fifty percent of these institutions ran courses for one day each week for one academic year, but many variations to this format exist. Lectures are given by collections curators appropriate to the field under discussion for that week, or by experienced guides with particular expertise. Discussions are conducted by experienced guides and by members of the education staff.

Courses in all galleries surveyed covered basic art history and theory, pedagogics, voice control and projection, instruction in gallery policies, instruction in the basic aims of the guiding group. and research techniques. The greatest emphasis is generally on pedagogics, or the science and art of teaching. At the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the “Socratic” method of posing a question and discussing to enhance perception and consideration is the approach. The aim is to teach the audience, whether adult or child, not what to see but how to see, as well as where to look for clues that works of art offer, and to awaken the latent powers of perception that museum visitors often are only vaguely aware of having.

Trainees are taught about “agegrading,” or what to expect of children at different ages, as well as how adults differ in their responses. Voice control is also taught as a valuable instrument in the guides’ repertoire of pedagogic variables. Often a lecturer from communications courses, or from a drama school, is invited to speak with guides about the value of changing one’s tone, pitch, or tempo, and how voice control can create or change moods. Trainees are shown the many ways that theme tours (tours that employ an overriding theme) can be established. In addition, trainees are taught that the aim of all tours is to maintain the spirit of anticipation that most visitors arrive with, and to keep the tour interesting and lively.

Most art history segments in the training courses are directed toward an understanding of the institutional collection. Collections vary enormously from on museum to another. Many house works of very local interest or particular ethnographic artifacts, such as the Museum of New Mexico. The Australian National Gallery in Canberra holds a collection that, like the city of Canberra itself, was planned to a particular formula from its inception. Some older galleries, by contrast, have simply grown and evolved with history, preserving great works from the past as they became available. Gallery guides must be directed to an understanding of their resident collection, and to the special value that the collection has for the public.

Evaluation and Maintenance of Standards

Quality control in guided tours is an area of guide administration that some galleries find quite difficult to manage. All galleries want to provide not only a service that is of high standard, but one where that standard is of consistent quality. In a situation where the operators of the service are voluntary the pursuance of quality control is often more sensitive to operate than a similar exercise with fully paid staff. An inefficient, dilatory, or unsuitable employee can probably be dismissed or moved to another area. To terminate an offer of service given with the best of intentions, free of charge, is a more difficult proposition.

Of course, prevention is far better than any cure can ever be. Therefore, one important answer concerning quality is to be extremely careful in the original selection process. One London art museum, for instance, has a very intelligent letter that it sends to candidates, which makes two cautionary statements that can act as escape clauses, allowing the group to tactfully reject unsuitable trainees right up until the end of training. The relevant paragraph states firstly that there are only ten places available for new guides and secondly that completion of the course does not guarantee a place among the docent group. Another gallery in Washington does not consider trainees fully accepted until the completion of a full year on the floor after training, during which time probationers work with a mentor at all times. This extensive practice is followed by a formal graduation ceremony that rewards such tenacity and dedication with a certificate. It sounds a bit hard, but trainee docents at that gallery know from the outset that if they cannot meet the requirements they will not receive certification.

Most galleries responding to the international questionnaire used a system of periodical ‘spot checking’ for the evaluation of trainees and in-service guides, both by education officers and experienced guides. Such ‘spot checking’ can be carried out in a very informal way but is considered absolutely essential by both the guides and the museum staff.

Several galleries have initiated a system where the process of self-evaluation is built into the normal procedures of guiding, right from the beginning of training. This system makes participants so familiar with an assessment situation that it no longer engenders fear. Self evaluation in both an individual and “team” situation can be an essential part of training, just as essential as any other part of the guiding technique.

Occasionally, long term guides find that not only have they lost their “memory of innocence” but also their ability to address problems objectively. They have lost their enthusiasm too, and without it feel as though they are giving tours in “parrot fashion.” Nonetheless, these guides still possess enormous experience, knowledge, and commitment to art, and want to continue in the group in a constructive way. One major Australian gallery has instituted an “Emeritus” classification within their traditional guiding system that makes very good use of such members who are considered, or consider themselves, to be “over the top.” The guides at that institution are initially contracted for three years and this Emeritus classification is for service beyond their contract. At this level these volunteers are expected to do research either for guides, staff educators, or curators, to give lectures to other guides when called upon, and to provide guided tours when the regular guides are under pressure.

Style and Substance

While the basic aim of the education programs of all the international institutions surveyed was to promote a wider understanding of art in the general public, there were variations in the manner that such education was to be delivered. On the whole, these variations fell into two main streams, one for Great Britain and the other for Australia, Canada, and the United States.

In Great Britain, the general approach is to expand their informed audience by directing programming toward school teachers and interested adults, in the expectation that these constituencies will, in turn, transmit the art museum experience to school children and the wider public. It is hoped thus to create a kind of “ripple effect,” where activity at the gallery creates ever widening circles of activity out to the edges of the societal “pool.”

In Australia, Canada, and the U.S., such programs are integral to institutional policies, but are parallel to, or even dominated by, activities designed directly for young audiences. Large numbers of school children are taken on guided tours of the galleries by trained volunteers or by paid education officers. There is no need to delineate between the paid or unpaid officers in this situation as unpaid does not mean unprofessional where the selection and training of voluntary guides is treated in a professional manner.

Regardless of location, museums are no longer simply in the business of research and conservation for the further education of the intellectually elite. Nor are museums ends in themselves; at the end of the twentieth century, museums are means in the service of society and its cultural evolution.

Today, to accomplish their mission, they have to entertain people as well as inform them. As much as museum personnel may deplore the notion that one of their roles is the business of entertainment, to ignore such a notion is dangerous at the very least. Museums must be able to compete with such leisure activities as arcade games, television, reading, or sport. It takes time and energy to visit a museum so it needs to be worth doing — it must be a rewarding and stimulating experience for all who make the effort.

The role of gallery guides that differentiates them from all other personnel remains their special ability to communicate with such visitors in language that those visitors understand. In so doing, guides bring art into the experience of all who seek it. While it would be pretentious to suggest that volunteer guides are essential to the operations of museums, it is certainly true that without their services education programs would be severely curtailed and large numbers of visitors would be left unserved, disenfranchised, or indifferent.

Margaret Love has served as a voluntary gallery guide, or docent. at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth since 1978. A professional potter for over twenty years, she recently earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours, majoring in Fine Arts, from the University of Western Australia. This article represents one chapter from her honors dissertation, entitled ‘The Role of the Voluntary Guide in Public Gallery Education Programmes.” Ms. Love has generously offered The Docent Educator the opportunity to publish the results of her research and efforts in this and several future issues.

Love, Margaret. “An International Overview of Art Docents,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 8-11.


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