Docent Educator Logo

Don’t Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

I do a lot of traveling, both for business and pleasure. Wherever I go, museums and similar institutions are always on my list of “must visit” places. Consequently, I am frequently a “walk-in” visitor. I’ve enjoyed docent-led tours, demonstrations and mini-programs on specific aspects of a museum’s collection, and individual interactions and conversations with “gallery guides” whose job it is to interact and converse with walk-in visitors. I don’t do deliberate critiques unless I have been invited to do so, but I can’t help noticing when a docent presents a really exciting (or less than thrilling) tour of her facility, or when some other aspect of walk-in programming works (or doesn’t). Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

Most walk-in visitors want to have a good museum experience. Unlike some children in some school groups, walk-in visitors come to your institution because we want to. Oh, maybe some of us came in to get out of the rain or because we had an hour to kill before we had to get to the airport, but most of us actually came on purpose. If we choose to join your docent-led tour, we really want to learn something we think we can’t get on our own. When we gravitate to your “cart” or experience station, it’s because we think you have something interesting to impart.

Because most walk-in visitors want to have a good museum experience, we want you to learn enough about us to custom design the tour. We will wait politely for you to establish rapport with the group, even when you ask each of us the same three questions. “Where are you from?” “Have you visited our museum before?” “Is there something in particular you’d like to see?” On one such tour, a docent asked our group if we would like a general tour or a tour of the current special exhibition on Swedish porcelain. We agreed that since our time was limited and we were all unfamiliar with the museum, we would prefer a brief general tour so we could select portions of the collection to revisit on our own. The docent then proceeded to take us directly to the Swedish porcelain, explaining as she went that she had just completed a training session and really wanted to tell us what she’d learned. Even then, we tagged along quietly, assuming correctly that 30 minutes of Swedish porcelain wouldn’t kill us even though we had been asked, and had chosen, to see other things.

We will forgive you if you don’t know all the answers to our questions, particularly if you don’t pretend to know more than you do. I admire the honesty of a docent stationed at a cart in a science museum I visited even though I wished she had known more about her station. The cart contained models of various types of joints. I asked a question about the hip joint, since mine was beginning to give me a little trouble, and she replied, “I’m sorry, I only know what I’ve just told you. This isn’t my regular cart.” She quickly diverted my attention to an area for which she was better prepared, and, while my question wasn’t answered, I didn’t go away with misinformation either.

We will try to answer your questions. Even when a question is poorly stated, we will struggle to make it okay for you. I witnessed the following exchange that was the ultimate in visitor assistance:

Docent: “I’m thinking of three things that come from the rainforest that I’m sure you’ve used today. Can you tell me what they are?”

Audience: “Water?”

Docent: “No.”

Audience: “Medicine?”

Docent: “Well, yes, but that’s not one of the things I’m thinking of”

Audience: “Air?”

Docent: “Yes. Well, actually oxygen. Forty percent of the Earth’s oxygen is produced in the rainforest. Did any of you have a cup of coffee today? Well, a lot of foods come from the rainforest. The other thing I was thinking of was our shoes. Rubber also comes from the rainforest.”

We sighed a collective sigh of relief, relieved to learn the three things she had identified as coming from the rainforest, and pleased to come to the end of the guessing game.

In all my years of taking walk-in tours, I’ve only witnessed one occasion when a docent’s audience “turned” on her. And, in this case, it wasn’t really her fault. As we entered a gallery of African art, the docent began her introduction to the collection. “During the time that most of these exquisite artifacts were being produced, Africa was still known to most Europeans as the ‘Dark Continent’.”

“What a stupid thing to say,” exploded one of the group members.

As the docent struggled to regain her composure and attempted to explain the legitimate context of her statement, the woman stormed away from the group dragging her rather embarrassed teen-aged companion with her.

Unfortunately, the docent was never quite able to recover from this attack. Even though the rest of us tried to appear unruffled, we couldn’t help. She soon ended our tour with a feeble, “I hope you’ve enjoyed your time with us, and that you enjoy your visit to our city,” and abandoned us in the middle of a gallery.

There’s something else I’ve learned, however. Really successful docents don’t depend on the kindness of strangers. They quickly establish rapport, learning as much as they can about their group and using that information to “tailor-make” each tour. They master the content of their tours, reviewing and renewing constantly so they will be ready for (almost) any question. They use an inquiry approach to touring that allows their walk-in visitors to offer their impressions and experiences and makes any tour a shared adventure.

One of the most effective “rapport-building” sessions I experienced took place in the garden of one of Savannah’s historic homes. The ticket salesperson informed me that a tour would begin in about 10 minutes, pointed out the restrooms and gift shop, and directed me, when I was ready, to wait in the garden where the tour would begin. Having no need of the other two offerings, I went straight to the garden where I was surprised to find the docent already present. She was casually “dead-heading” some miniature roses and chatting with a couple who was waiting for the tour. She welcomed me, introduced herself and the other couple, and drew me into their conversation. As others joined us, she repeated the process. By the time our “tour” began, we all knew that we were first-time visitors; most of us were conversant with Savannah history from our own reading and the other tours we had taken; we were more interested in the home’s history than in its furnishings; and one of the men was a carpenter. We all benefited from this last piece of information, especially since restoration was underway on the home, and the docent deferred to his special knowledge whenever appropriate.

Being willing to learn from the group is one of those “flexibility” skills so important to an effective docent, but, again, you shouldn’t depend on your audience’s knowledge. After all, walk-in visitors have joined your group because we think you’re the expert! We don’t want to hear a lecture that includes everything you’ve ever learned about the subject, but we do want you to be able to answer our questions. How can you prepare for this when you have no idea what our questions will be?

One way to prepare is to continue to learn after your “basic training” as a docent is concluded. At least once a month, review the notes and handouts your docent training generated. At least once every three months review the galleries, re-reading label copy and textual material supplied by the museum for the general public. At least once during each touring season, read a book, magazine, or Internet data relevant to the collection you tour. Whenever a question arises that you can’t answer, take the questioner’s name and address, do the research, and send them an answer.

I’m privileged to work with a nature trail tour guide who keeps the rest of us on our toes. She is never content to let a question float off into space without an ultimate answer. When one of our guest instructors contradicted information we had previously learned about a vine that is prevalent in the forest we tour, she tracked down a source (with pictures) that confirmed our original information and shared it with the rest of us. Her rationale for the extra work: “I tour about 60 kids a week. If I give each one erroneous information, I’ve misled almost 1,000 kids during our 16 weeks of touring. That’s not fair.”

Accurate facts are an important part of a walk-in visit, but when facts give way to truly open-ended questions, docents and visitors alike conclude their tour having shared an adventure. When questions are designed to tap into our store of knowledge or, more importantly, our experiences and opinions, walk-in visitors can feel a sense of ownership of the tour. For example, look at entirely different kinds of questions about a rainforest tour.

Docent: I hope you’ve had time to explore all three levels of our rainforest, but we’ll concentrate on the part we can see from here. I’d like you to help me think of some words and phrases that describe what the rainforest looks like.

Audience: Multiple answers such as “green,” “thick,” “leafy,” “full of birds,” etc. that the docent can validate and build upon. (“Yes, and it’s those wonderful green leaves that help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”)

Docent: Great! Now, let’s come up with some different words and phrases that describe other aspects of the rainforest — maybe the way it feels, or smells, or the way it sounds.

Audience: Multiple answers such as “wet,” “hot,” “bird calls,” “fecund,” etc. that the docent can use to turn her walk-in visitors from passive viewers into active participants. (“Yes, wet and hot do describe most rainforests. but there are some rainforests, such as one in Washington State, that are actually wet and cool.”)

Docent: Those are all really good ways to describe a rainforest. There’s another word that describes many of the Earth’s rainforests— endangered.

In this case, the docent is able to convey factual information without boring us with a lecture, or “pretending” to involve us by asking questions that require factual answers.

Docents who build rapport with their walk-in visitors, prepare to answer our unexpected questions, and involve us with questions we can all answer will soon find they don’t need to depend on the kindness of strangers. We won’t be strangers anymore!

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Don’t Depend on the Kindness of Strangers,” The Docent Educator 10.3 (Spring 2001): 17-19.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *