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Building Bridges

Multiculturalism is a term that perplexes me. I have attended conference sessions and museum-sponsored seminars, read articles, and participated in many informal discussions on the term. It seems the term ‘multiculturalism’ is one of those enormous concepts that holds a variety of meanings. I’m a little uncomfortable with this because the term is so often used as if we all understood and accepted a shared meaning. And, from my own experiences, that is rarely the case.

This past summer, while rereading Harper Lee’s novel. To Kill A Mockingbird, I came across the passage where Atticus Finch is comforting his daughter. Scout, after a particularly trying day at school.

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

“First of all, ” he said, “ifyou can learn a simple trick. Scout, you ‘II get along a lot better with all kinds offolks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view —” “Sir?”

“— until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. ”

That’s it. In Miss Lee’s I960 novel about childhood in a Southern town, I’d finally found an elegant way to sum up how I personally define the term multiculturalism. To get inside someone else ‘s skin and walk around in itfor a while. This may not be the way the museum community chooses to define the term, but this definition helps me remember that when I’m developing or participating in programs, I must actively seek out many points of view, that my truth is not the only truth, and that I must help all people feel considered and welcome if I truly want to connect with my audience. Creating the Welcome Mat

Your primary responsibility as a docent is to make each person you encounter at your museum feel welcome. One way to do this is to shift how you think about the people who visit your institution. What if everyone who walks through your doors was considered a guest, rather than a visitor? Would that shift in perception influence how you respond in your role as docent? How differently do you treat a guest in your home from a visitor at your door? I have heard museum staff— both paid and volunteer — mutter the term ‘visitor’ as if a visitor were someone to be avoided. Museum, zoo, park, or garden guests are our reason for being. And, if our guests feel welcome and wanted, they will return.

Facing Stereotypes

Institutions across the United States are heeding the call to diversify their boards, staff, and volunteer corps. And despite efforts to develop staffs that reflect an institution’s entire community, I still look like the average docent in most museums: middle-to upper-middle class, married, over – 30 female of European descent. These facts about me can influence how I treat others and how other people treat me. So, when I conduct programs, I need to consider the stereotypes I hold for other cultural groups. What things get in the way of my attempts to connect with others? I must acknowledge my biases about age, abilities, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, and economics. Those are the “biggies,” but there are much more subtle stereotypes that can interfere with my connecting with guests. For example, prejudging students’ abilities, performance, and behaviors based on the address of the school, or because the children are visiting from a particular day camp, or making assumptions about the attitudes and behavior of chaperones, kids who wear starter jackets, people in fur coats, or people who only visit on ‘free day.’

Group labels can also get in the way of connecting with people. Often, tour reservation forms contain cryptic notes such as “learning disabilities,” “seniors,” and “gifted.” Like ‘multicultural’ the meanings of these terms can vary wildly depending on who’s using them. You owe it to yourself and your guests to fully understand what that label means for the group in order to do your best work. How can you do that? I urge docents to telephone the leader of the group to discuss the types and extent of “learning disabilities,” or “giftedness,” or whatever.

After calling, I knew a docent who rerouted his tour to be certain it would be fully accessible for the seniors who used wheelchairs. Another docent included many more touchable objects than usual after learning that some of the students in her group are blind. A third docent made a point of learning how to say, “Good morning, children. Welcome to the zoo!” in Spanish even though she knew the group would have a translator along. Being able to discuss and clarify a label with the group’s leader helps docents tailor basic programs to the needs of the group.

I must also understand that museum guests will prejudge me based on the stereotypes they hold for people who look and act like me. It is my responsibility to think about ways to put others at ease so I can help museum guests make the most of their visit.

Building Bridges

Regardless of the cultural differences that separate people there are many commonalities that we all share and which can help us bridge the gaps between us. Try to focus on the shared commonalities to help put museum guests at ease.

First, everyone wants to know what’s going to happen next. Knowing what to expect helps people relax enough to appreciate whatever comes next. How do you do that?

Before beginning anything, set expectations. At the start of a tour, introduce yourself and let guests, especially children, know how to address you — “I like to be called Jean.” Positively state any rules or preferences up front. For example, “We need to be especially quiet after entering this enclosure because our female fruit bat gave birth last week,” or “Let’s hold all questions until we get onto the trail.” Let guests know where bathrooms are located and when there will be time to take a break. Be clear about smoking policies and where refreshments can be enjoyed.

When teaching a class, let teachers and parents know what’s expected of them. For instance, “When we get to the craft project, I’d like all the adults to help the children cut the fabric.” Let children know if you have rules that might be different from their classroom rules.

Another thing people share in common is curiosity. People love to be in the know — so, tell ’em! Work to satisfy their curiosity about your entire institution. Talk about upcoming events or classes, share information about becoming a member of your institution, let them know how to take advantage of family programs, special tours, volunteering, or anything else that may pique a guest’s interest in further participation. The more information you can share with guests the more at home they will feel. Just be sure that any information you share is intended to be shared publicly.

Everyone wants to feel like they matter. Here are some ways to show your guests they truly matter to you and your institution. Start on time and end on time. Everyone’s time is valuable and punctuality is a sign of respect. When a group arrives late for a program, the best course of action is to deliver the entire program as planned. However, when tight scheduling makes that impossible, be prepared to edit the late-arriving group’s program down to the most important elements without taking time from die next group. All this needs to be done without blaming the group for being late. Usually their late arrival was out of their control.

Guests want to feel like you were expecting them. Know the name of the group or the school, including the correct pronunciation. Learn the name of the teacher or group leader, have all props ready and enough handouts. Greet guests with a genuine smile. Sometimes groups show up for tours, but no one at the museum was expecting them. Someone made a mistake. Figure that out after the guests have received the most informative and gracious tour possible.

Take into account your guests’ experience with your institution. Ask them questions — Have you visited here before? What have you been studying in school? Is anyone a member? Was there something you specifically hoped to see? Be flexible. Change what you can to meet their needs and let them know if there is anything you won’t be able to cover. Rethink the vocabulary, examples, and anecdotes. During a tour, a docent use the term “flesh-colored.” What he meant was a very pale tan color. His audience, however, was a class of African- American children. The adjective he selected caused confusion at best.

Some Final Thoughts


The stillness of the exhibit is broken. “Joanne, look!!! It’s here — the baby giraffe you told us about — it’s here — I saw it!”

Unbridled, raw enthusiasm. The cry of a seven-year-old connecting with something her teacher helped her discover at the afterschool program she attends.

Imagine you’re the docent in this exhibit. The quiet of your observation ends as several young children from an inner-city afterschool program enter. What are you feeling? How will you react? Because museum guests see docents as the embodiment of the museum, how you respond to these children and their teacher will largely determine the quality of their visit and their feelings towards the institution. What choices will you make?

Jean Linsner directs Operation SMART, a science, math, and technology program for children in Chicago YWCA afterschool centers. She is Program Co-Chair for the Association of Volunteer Administrators of Metropolitan Chicago. Ms. Linsner earned her M.S. in Education at Indiana University. Prior to joining the YWCA staff, she managed the docent and Guest Guide volunteer programs at the Brookfield Zoo. Ms. Linsner wrote of her experiences managing the Zoo’s 270 volunteers in her article “Volunteer Program Mechanics, ” which appeared in the Spring 1994 issue o/The Docent Educator.

Linsner, Jean. “Building Bridges,” The Docent Educator 4.2(Winter 1994/95):4-6.


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