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Docents Online…Computers, Schools, and Museum Docents

Prior to the explosion of the internet, the use of computers by many docents was limited primarily to word processing functions — drafting reports required as part of training, or perhaps constructing tours and recording or arranging information. With the wealth of information now online, from the everyday to the highly specialized, and the exponential growth of museum and school websites, the computer will soon become as familiar a tool for the average docents as a book, catalogue, or notepad.

Through the world wide web, docents with a computer at home will theoretically (now or in the near future) be able to check schedules of museum tours and training sessions, review facts related to objects on upcoming tours, or, through e-mail, correspond with their education department coordinator in lieu of (or in addition to) placing telephone calls. In their respective museums, in addition to touch-screen terminals with interpretive information that have now become commonplace, docents may come to rely more and more on computers available to them in their meeting or library space.

By the time of the publication of this article, the docents of The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) will have had a tangerine iMac installed in their meeting room, for the purpose of expanding their means of gathering and sending information, as well as providing them with word processing applications. Set next to the bookshelves loaded with monographs, and popular and scholarly studies of artists’ careers, historical movements, and art of diverse cultures, the monitor, keyboard, and mouse will function as a dynamic extension of the printed page, providing immediate access, through museum sites and educational webpages, to rich sources of abundant information on a wide array of content areas, including topics ranging from the uses of color in art, to Native American pottery, to the exploits and family tree of Hercules.

Museum Websites and Online Exhibitions

To encourage docents to surf the net, website demonstrations and computer training sessions for docents will be scheduled at the Art Institute. Creation of a docent home page with an easily read menu of direct links to sites on the internet, and clear placement of icons needed to launch programs will be a convenience for the group as a whole and especially appreciated by novice computer users. (A preliminary poll of the AIC’s 130 docents revealed that an estimated 76% were already computer literate, and the majority of these were daily users with extensive internet experience.)

Among the numerous benefits of briefing on computer use will be exposure to the wealth of information that is provided via the internet by other museums. Many institutions, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (http // www and the Getty Museum ( museum) use their websites to provide detailed interpretive information on their permanent collections. The National Gallery’s remarkably thorough digital monographs on individual artists and objects (“In-Depth Studies of Artists and Works of Art”) are extremely valuable resources for the docent, teacher, and student alike ( collection/webfeatrhtm). Also of particular note is a section on the Getty’s educational webpage, ArtsEdNet, devoted to antiquities, “Looking at the Art of Ancient Greece and Rome” (http // wwAA/.artsednet Resources/Beauty/index.html) that introduces classical sculpture, using an engaging, inquiry-based style appropriate for students and a good model for docents.

Other museum websites provide visually stunning and content-rich treatments of traveling exhibitions, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Glory of Byzantium (held in 1997, archived at “ Education/byzantium/byzhome.html” and Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (1998-99) at the National Gallery in Washington , DC (see ”Vincent van Gogh Teaching Program,” at http //www.nga. govresources.vgt_splash.htm).

Pending funding, an online treatment of an upcoming exhibition at the Art Institute, Taoism and the Arts of China, scheduled for 2000, will constitute a dynamic new aid for docents and teachers, providing information on a complex subject in an accessible format meant to complement the scholarly catalogue. Interpretive material on exhibition objects will be supplemented by teacher lesson plans, a glossary, timeline, maps, and a comparative guide to the other major religions of Asia.

For docents seeking information on exhibitions in other cities that they have traditionally obtained through reviews and feature stories in the press and journals, websites often provide a richer, more in=depth treatment of content and display of images. Such online resources hold value for those in host cities as well as distant locations. Art Institute docents, for example, can apply the interpretive information and discussion questions found in the online Van Gogh exhibition to paintings by the artist in the permanent collection in Chicago. While many exhibitions are presented on the internet, stimulating CD-ROM treatments of some major shows, such as Cézanne, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996, have been produced in a format designed for young people (“A” is for Art, “C” is for Cézanne).

Teacher Resources Online

The increasing tendency to provide discussion questions, glossaries, and lesson plans designed for teacher use are of strategic importance for docents as well. An excellent resource of this type is the Detroit Institute of Art’s “Ancient Egypt Lesson Plan for Teachers” (http.7/wvwv,dia,org/edu/ edu.html). Here users will find a handsomely designed, rich and varied set of lesson plans and classroom activities, cross-referenced with state goals and objectives, arranged according to content areas (language arts, art, math and science, and social studies), and illustrated with step-by-step color photographs. With lesson plans online, both docents and teachers become more acutely aware of potential applications that may stem from the study of museum objects. A teacher planning classroom follow-up of a museum tour of Egyptian art with an activity in which students make canopic jars, for instance, could share that fact with the docent prior to the tour (perhaps by e-mail), sending the docent to the website, where (s)he could acquire a thorough understanding of the project and adjust the tour content accordingly.

Some web pages for teachers generously provide multiple pathways to complimentary websites. An outstanding example is found on ArtsEdNet (, the website devoted to arts education produced by the Getty Education Institute for the Arts, which features an extensive, multi-part curricular unit centered around ancient Rome during Trajan’s reign ( ArtsEdNet/Resources/Trajan/ index.html). This exceptional resource, titled “Trajan’s Rome: the Man, the City, the Empire” was prepared in collaboration with the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. An extensive digital bibliography of other websites on topics related to the world of Trajan includes 44 direct links. Other lesson plans offered through ArtsEdNet include, “The Web of Life: The Art of John Biggers,” “Chicana and Chicano Space,” “Focus on Original Art— Seventeenth- Century Comparisons.”

Docents can also glean insights from websites of the school systems in their respective geographic locations. For example, the Chicago Public Schools website (, which debuted in August 1998, includes descriptions of class projects and websites of interest in various content areas (fine arts, language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education, and technology) and carries direct links to the Art Institute and other Chicago museums.

Website Upgrades

Docents at The Art Institute of Chicago recently witnessed — along with internet users globally a significant development in the growth of their museum’s own website (, with a dramatic increase in the number of permanent collection works reproduced and interpreted with text narrative. From the twelve works that had been previously featured, the number increased to over 100 in April, 1999. Though the text is not new (it was transferred from the Art Institute’s illustrated Pocketguide), the ability to view enlarged digitized images of objects that are reproduced only in miniature in the printed guide provides an immediate advantage. Another feature becoming a fast favorite among the docents and general website visitors is the introduction of QuickTime software “movies” that offer uninterrupted 360 degree views of selected galleries in a format allowing viewers to pan and zoom at their discretion.

Currently in progress is a transfer to the website of Cleopatra: A Multi-Media Guide to Ancient Art, which for several years has been illuminating the Art Institute’s classical collection for museum visitors from terminals located in museum galleries.

The extensive narrative information in this program, which features still images, QuickTime clips, and animated segments relating to elements of the technique, style, iconography, function, and provenance of 18 objects from the Art Institute’s classical collection is currently being transformed from its original touch-screen format to the point-and-click mode of the internet. The accessibility of this extensive information on any networked computer will be a matter of no small consequence to docents at the Art Institute and elsewhere. Added to the existing Cleopatra program will be an extensive number of lesson plans in five content areas (art, English language arts, mathematics, science, social sciences) keyed to Illinois goals and standards, and a website bibliography, directing students to sites such as Perseus (www.perseus.tufts. edu), an exhaustive database on classical culture administered by Tufts University, which now features two sections for young people, “Hercules: Greece’s Greatest Hero,” and the “Ancient Olympics.”

Proposed AIC website enhancements of interest to both docents and teachers include the posting of reproductions linked to the menu of 23 docent-led school tour topics from which teachers select their field trip visits, such as “Impressionism and Post- Impressionism,” “Africa and African-American Art,” and “Clues from the Past.” This would mean that small, thumbnail images of eight objects featured on a tour of Asian art, for example, would appear on the screen if that topic were selected, most of which would link to narrative paragraphs about them. This enhancement will allow docents to visually reference and review at a glance the range and scope of objects on their tours. In addition, it will give teachers a more in-depth preview of tour content, helping them design pre- and post-visit work for their students. Within another year, interpretive aids for the Art Institute’s permanent collection will hopefully extend further to include teacher lesson plans, questioning strategies, bibliographies (both printed and digital sources), glossaries of terms, maps, and home activities for parents and children. Interactive hypermedia games excerpted and adapted from CD-ROM’s produced by the AIC, With Open Eyes: Images from The Art Institute of Chicago and Telling Images: Stories in Art will also comprise part of the comprehensive upgrade.

Merging Digital and Print Media

Within the next few years, the Art Institute’s website will most likely become an indispensable supplement to the collection of curriculum manuals (slides, transparencies, and printed texts) now distributed through the Elizabeth Stone Robson Teacher Resource Center. In fact, the line between hypermedia and traditional printed material will be bridged with the release of a teacher manual on ancient Mediterranean art in the permanent collection of the Art Institute. This will be the first manual to make reference to the website in its text, with suggestions for a number of student projects based on use of Cleopatra and other internet resources.

A major step in the merging of digital and print media was taken in 1998 by the Education Department of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with release of a spiral bound Classroom Curriculum Guide written to accompany the award-winning CD-ROM, Voices and Images Of California Art (a digitized compendium of artworks and written documents on eight California artists) that had been released previously for general audiences. Developed in close collaboration with teachers, this guide supplements the wealth of information provided in the CDROM with classroom suggestions in language arts, history, and visual arts designed for grades four to twelve and includes a timeline, bibliography and curriculum skills grid.

Brave New (Digital) World

Like it or not, the computer and internet revolutions have arrived, with consequences for docents and the schools they serve that will result in dynamic change. The most welcome component of that change wiU be the dramatic improvement in availability of current information and ease and speed in communication. While it is true that many museums, docents, and schools have neither the computers nor the internet connections to join in the digital revolution at present, the world wide web marches on.

As a poll taken earlier this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows, the demographics of internet use are shifting to embrace a more democratic sector of the American population: “Increasingly people without college training, those with modest incomes, and women are joining the ranks of Internet users, who not long ago were largely well-educated, affluent men.” (Pew Research Center, www. people-press org/tech98sum.html, January 14, 1999).

As internet use expands in museums and homes, the web may come to serve as an electronic link though which docents communicate. This could be accomplished through the creation of list serves or newsgroups, in which messages are posted online to be read by subscribed members of the respective user groups, either limited to the docent’s own museum or broadened to include docents from around the country or the world. Such a national (or international) docent newsgroup, if realized, could parallel Museum- Ed, the principal list serve for museum educators launched in 1995 ( html), which some docents now monitor.

In the future, it is not unrealistic to imagine a docent checking her e-mail at home in the morning for interesting postings on the docent list serve; consulting the updated schedule of school tours on file share and finding that a change has been requested in the contents of an upcoming tour; and brushing up on facts about several works that are not included in existing handbooks and catalogues. An e-mail question from a teacher coming with her class for a tour next week is received, which the docent answers before heading to the museum. Once inside the building, the text of a research paper, stored on disk, that she has been preparing as part of training is completed on the docent computer. After, she examines several works in the galleries to verify prior observations. The paper is printed out, ready to be handed in by the deadline.

Even as you read this article, the use of computers is altering, directly and indirectly, the speed and the quantity of information exchanged by docents with museums, schools, and other docents. It is important to confirm that the energy and resources of the brave new world of educational technology are being channeled to enhance, not interfere with the fundamental encounter, mediated in the museum by the docent, between object and visitor. Enhancing this encounter is, after all, the aim of museum education, and a primary objective of any docent conducting a gallery tour, who now has at his and her disposal a powerful new aid— digital technology— to assist in the challenging mission.

David Stark is the senior associate director of museum education at The Art Institute of Chicago, in Chicago, IL. His e-mail address is

Stark, David. “Docents Online…Computers, Schools, and Museum Docents,” The Docent Educator 8.4 (Summer 1999): 10-13.

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