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Different, Yet the Same

As a freshman in college, and all of 18 years old, I shared a Spanish class with a woman who was in her 70’s. One day, while chatting before the teacher arrived, I asked the woman why she was bothering to learn a new language at her age. “I don’t know,” she answered graciously and patiently, “I was thinking someday I might travel to South America and would want to know the language.” I was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that a person who was in her 70’s might be eager to continue exploring and learning. I thought that by the age of 70, a person was at the end of life’s experiences. Little did I know.

Learning is truly a life-long pursuit. And, today, people are living longer, better, more healthily, and with greater resources than ever before. As a rule, people who are considered “seniors” are far more vital than younger people might expect and, even when they do have infirmities or impairments, remain eager to continue learning and growing. In spite of this happy reality, no audience (with the possible exception of teenagers) can intimidate docents more. The reasons for this are a mystery, for few audiences seem better prepared for learning, more attentive, or more grateful for the experience. Perhaps, when we meet people who are older, we get a glimpse of our own mortality and that puts us off balance. Whatever the reasons, we should remember that the desire to satisfy one’s curiosity and quench the thirst to know does not necessarily diminish with age.

Assessing the Group

Hopefully, when any group contacts your institution about reserving a docent-led visit, the museum representative will ask questions designed to make the visit more meaningful and appropriate. Just as one might inquire about a school group when a teacher calls, any group leader contacting your institution on behalf of seniors or people who are elderly should be asked such questions as:

How many people will be in the group? Is your group hoping to see a specific exhibition or do they want a more general overview of our collection? Does the group have a specific purpose or reason for this visit? Do any members of your group require the use of wheelchairs; or, do they have other special needs, such as mobility, vision, and/or hearing impairments?

These questions go beyond courtesy. They allow docents to strategize an appropriate focus for their tours, plan the physical routes they will take, and reflect upon any stylistic changes that might be helpful. Such related issues as scheduling additional time to move from one place to the next or taking greater advantage of transitions to maintain tour cohesiveness can also be considered and factored into the lesson plan.

Accommodating Needs

Docents should heed the scouting motto, “be prepared.” Docents ought to know how to ensure that all visitors, regardless of age, attributes, or infirmities, will have a pleasant and productive touring experience. It can be both irritating and embarrassing for a visitor to discover that he or she cannot join the rest of the group because a path is not appropriate for adaptive equipment or because the distances traveled will be too great for a person who walks slowly. Equally frustrating for visitors of any age is finding that they cannot hear the docent or see the collection.

It is appropriate and polite to ask if anyone might have a problem hearing your voice or seeing the exhibit. If one or two people raise their hands, bring them closer to you (rather than shout at them). If more than a few people can’t see, perhaps you have chosen the wrong object or artifact to focus upon. Whenever possible, have people rotate their positions so that everyone has a chance to inspect closely. Also, provide the group with a verbal description if an object or living creature might be difficult to see.

Before entering a dimly lit gallery, tell your visitors of the lighting change and give them time to adjust to the low lighting before charging ahead. (The older we get, the more time we need to adjust to a sudden change in lighting.) Perhaps, while waiting, the docent could provide an orientation or relate an anecdote that will enhance the experience and keep the “down time” productive.

Like all visitors, seniors tire when standing for long periods of time. (In truth, I’ve hear people of all ages complain of “museum-itis,” which usually refers to lower back pain and stiffness from standing too long.) Compounding this problem is the lack of comfortable seating in many museums’ galleries. It might be a good idea, therefore, to make portable seats available. Many museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, and galleries have lightweight stools that are used, primarily, during docent training sessions. These stools could be made available to seniors who, should they choose to take them, can rest at each stop along the tour and be more comfortable while investigating an object or specimen in-depth.

Encouraging Participation

Yes, like all other visitors, seniors and people who are elderly will gain more from a docent-led visit if that encounter is conducted in a participatory manner. Just listening to someone else talk will fatigue anyone after a while. And, as is true of all other groups, participatory activities will increase a senior’s willingness to investigate an object or specimen longer, while improving what is learned and retained from the encounter.

Since all adults tend to be more reticent to respond to questions than school-aged visitors are, I suggest employing “rhetorical questions” to get the ball rolling. Rhetorical questions are those questions asked without expectation of a verbal response from your audience. For instance, when approaching a non-representational work of art, a docent might say, “You might be asking yourself, ‘What would be an appropriate title for this sculpture?'” While such a question will lead your visitors to request the artist’s title, it also challenges them to think of a title of their own. Frequently, one or two people among the group will blurt out their response to your question, if you pause after asking it, which will open the conversation up for full group discussion.

Similarly, in a science museum or nature center, a rhetorical question might be, “What is it about minerals and gems that have made them coveted by people throughout time and across the globe?” An enlongated pause after positing such a question often elicits responses from the audience. Additional questions about uses, appearance, or properties should follow these responses and lead to productive observation and comparison activities.

Rhetorical questions are constructed the same way other open-ended questions are developed. Such questions should request that visitors participate by observing, comparing, classifying, summarizing, interpreting, hypothesizing, imagining, or deciding. The only real difference is that rhetorical questions are asked in such a way that if no one responds verbally, the lesson can still continue. The point is that all open-ended questions, including rhetorical ones, will stimulate active thinking and encourage personal involvement even if visitors do not offer their answers out loud.

Building Upon Knowledge

Two truisms can be knitted together to improve your teaching. The first truism is that the older we get the more we tend to indulge ourselves in remembering “the old days.” The second truism is that people learn best when building upon knowledge or experiences they already possess. This is why, when touring seniors, you might consider introducing lessons or creating transitions by requesting reminiscences.

“Do you remember when everyone used manual typewriters and fountain pens? In what ways was writing and corresponding different then from the way it is today?” After accumulating responses and anecdotes, you might continue by saying, “Well, far greater shifts took place throughout society when books changed from being precious individual works, such as these illuminated manuscripts, to being press-produced copies such as these printed texts over here.”

Requesting reminiscences of seniors is a wonderfully effective way to garner participation and connect new information to known facts or experiences. “What games or toys did you play with when you were a child? How are they different from those young children play with today?” are questions I might ask seniors before taking them to look at toys in the children’s bedroom of an historic house museum. Or, “In what ways was life more formal when you were young than it is today?” might be used to introduce and further the contrast when examining antique clothing, personal calling cards, sitting rooms, food service pieces, or other items found in many history collections.

And, such questions as, “What did your generation do that shocked your parents?” might serve as a useful introduction when looking at works of art that explore unconventional or contemporary issues, lifestyles, fashions, or themes.

Avoiding stereotypes

While I have presented ideas and approaches that I apply to the category of people called “seniors” or “elderly” it is important to remember that the people grouped within such categories are not homogenous. Personally, I find it useful to remind myself not to stereotype people using sweeping generalizations or labels. It is too easy, and usually inaccurate, to suggest that people can be formulaically grouped into categories like “Hispanic,” or “yuppie,” or “disabled” or “gay,” or “old.” Within such categories are individuals who are different from one another, and my teaching should honor those differences.

It may sound like an exercise in “political correctness,” but I find it useful not to say “Hispanic people” or “gay people” or “disabled people” or “old people” but to say “people who are Hispanic,” or “people who are gay,” or “people who have disabilities,” or “people who are older.” It reminds me that we are all people and not the labels used to modify us.

While seniors and people who are elderly may be naturally grouped by their age, most of their commonalties end there. If you are open and aware, you will discover as many differences within this category as there are people in it. And so, while you consider how to teach this group, keep in mind that one size will not fit all.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor


Gartenhaus, Alan. “Different, Yet the Same,” The Docent Educator12.3 (Spring 2003): 2-5.


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