Docents in the 21st Century
The depiction of a docent as purely a lecturer responsible for educating visitors on museum objects and artifacts may someday become part of museum history. Today, the docent role in many institutions has been expanded to encompass a vast range of functions and services that are an integral part of the museum’s efforts to foster lifelong learning and respond to diverse audiences. The docent organization, if utilized well, can be a vital marketing tool within the museum network to help increase membership, expand the visitation base, and make the museum experience more welcoming and interesting to all of its visitors.
Recruiting tine Next Generation of Docents
The Jewish Museum in New York City created a new model organization over the last two years that exemplifies the changing docent role. The process began in 1992, in conjunction with the complete renovation and re-casting of the existing facility and its permanent exhibition. A Docent Advisory Committee was formed with the goal of soliciting dedicated docents willing to train extensively for all exhibits, be sensitive to all constituencies, and take a leadership role in developing new programs that responded to the diverse audiences of the Museum
After a rigorous training and assessment process, including individual screening, presentations by applicants in an area of interest, extensive question and answer periods and evaluation, thirty docents were chosen from 120 applicants. The candidates varied in background, age, and areas of expertise. Many were bilingual, some trilingual, and had experience in special education and management. They brought enthusiasm and professionalism to the docent position.
An intensive two-year training program was developed to assist new docents in the mastery of facts and concepts related to the permanent exhibition. Lectures by curators and experienced docents, and tours to relevant institutions beyond the Museum, were part of the training process. Additional emphasis was placed on presentation skills. The training process gave our docents the expertise to move new programming concepts from the drawing board into reality.
Expanding the Traditional Role
As the role of the museum changes from the care and custody of objects to the disseminator of life-long learning, it is the docent’ s challenge to create innovative ways to convey ideas and to make the museum experience one that embraces all. As our group evolved, we recognized that there were a host of needs we could potentially respond to, and we were fortunate enough to have the resources and talent to do so. The Docent Advisory Committee, chaired by the Docent Coordinator, focused upon implementing programs in five designated areas:
- The Visitor with Special Needs
- The International Visitor
- Gallery Talks
- Community Outreach
- University Without Walls – Homebound Education
Reaching Out to a Population with Special Needs
As an integral part of the initiative, the committee explored state-of-the-art applications for people who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hearing impaired that could be applied to enhance the quality of their learning experiences at the Jewish Museum.
Currently, selected text panels from the Museum’s permanent exhibition. Culture and Continuity, have been converted into large print and Braille. “Touch Tours,” an experience by touch of selected ceremonial objects, are provided Mondays through Thursdays. And a relatively new process for us, Tactile Image Enhancer, is now in use. Quite simply, it translates the visual complexity of a painting by placing areas of the picture into different themes and offering the tactile translation of each theme to the viewer to build the process of “seeing.”
Day and evening tours of exhibitions by certified language translators are conducted once a week. In addition, the “Wireless Tour Guide,” a wireless headset and transmitter, is now available to help hearing impaired and deaf tour participants overcome poor auditory conditions in the museum setting. To further aid these visitors in their interpretation of museum exhibitions, written transcriptions of exhibition video presentations are now available.
Welcoming the International Visitor
To expand the reach of the museum to encompass the international visitor, docents are in the process of translating all permanent exhibition text panels and video presentations into French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Yiddish. As different language needs become identified, new translations will become available to serve specific visitors. Currently, tours can be scheduled for the culturally diverse visitor on specific days at designated times.
Discovering New Ideas Through Gallery Talks
Among the most stimulating of enterprises for docents has been their abiUty to create new interpretations and focuses of discovery for the permanent exhibition. It is a way of infusing the exhibition with new Hfe and providing the visitor with a reason to return and revisit the Museum’s magnificent collection.
During the 1995-96 exhibition season visitors can experience aspects of the permanent exhibition, Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, through four newly created gallery talks, each with its own focus: Jewish Folk Art (extraordinary objects made by ordinary people); Faces in History (a survey of portraits from the 16th to 20th centuries); Treasures of the Jewish Museum (important objects and their collectors); and The Italian Jewish Journey (insights into a specific nationality and their faith).
Beyond the Museum Visitor – Outreach Efforts
An ongoing dilemma for all public institutions is how to reach beyond the “pre-disposed” audience and cultivate new audiences. For the docents at the Jewish Museum, a program created to deal with this issue is that of community outreach. On-site lectures, enhanced by slide presentations, have been developed for organizations in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). Direct mail letters are sent to hundreds of synagogues, Jewish Community Groups, libraries, and men’s and women’s organizations. As a result of the mailing, approximately fifty to sixty groups respond each year.
Bringing the Museum to the Homebound: the University Without Walls
An extraordinary venture developed by the non-profit organization Dorot, the “University Without Walls” offers homebound individuals the opportunity to take courses with other students through teleconferencing. Docents serve as the master teachers. Students receive curriculum and resource materials and participate in each course for 50 minutes per week for eight to ten weeks. The course culminates with a visit to the Museum for those who can manage. For many, the program is a life-line to communication and the world beyond their homes.
Programs such as these are of no consequence if their availability is not promoted. To that end, we have alerted appropriate organizations serving different constituencies (such as visually and hearing impaired people) in the tri-state area of our services. Through letters, press releases to targeted media, and direct solicitation by phone, we have sought to expand our reach. The process has become the modus operandi for each of our program areas.
Through the process of developing and implementing new programs that engage the visitors and make them comfortable within the museum environment, the traditional role of the docent has changed. Today’s docent has become an advocate for the diverse populations visiting the museum. What has become clear in this changing world is that imagination, flexibility, and innovation are key to responding to our audience’s varying and diverse needs.
It is our hope that this article will open a dialogue, prompting others to share ways docents will be meeting the needs of their museums in the twenty-first century.
Lorraine Beitler. Ed.D., is the Coordinator of Docent Programs at Tire Jewish Museum in New York City. A professor emeritus, Dr. Beitler is the Past President of the International Reading Association, a consultant, and a contributor to various professional publications.
Beitler, Lorraine. “Docents in the 21st Century,” The Docent Educator 5.2 (Winter 1995-96): 8-9.
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