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Getting Down to Basics

A fidgety third grader; a bored teenager; a young husband who has been dragged into our tour as part of a previously arranged marital agreement (“I went to the boat show with you, so . . .”)• We’ve all had them, or some variation of them. Visitors who just didn’t seem to appreciate our art, our artifacts, or our 1 8th century highboy Revisiting some basic psychology may help docents understand why some of our visitors don’t seem to “get it,” no matter how hard we work to engage them. More importantly, it also may provide clues that will help us make it easier for all our visitors to explore and appreciate our collections.

Abraham Maslow published his “Hierarchy of Needs” way back in 1954. This landmark theory of human motivation remains a definitive text. It emphasizes two types of needs, which must be met in order for a person to reach his potential, or, perhaps, to appreciate “the finer things” in our museum.

The first four, Maslow defines as “deficiency needs.” Until these deficiency needs are met, growth cannot take place. Information and activities that do not directly connect to satisfy these needs are simply ignored. For both classroom and museum educators, this means that we must help our “students” satisfy these basic needs before we can expect them to explore and appreciate what they encounter in our institutions.

Physiological Needs

When I hear a museum educator remark that “the water fountains are off-limits to school groups,” I cringe. Equally appalling is the idea (even though it bears a grain of truth) that “we don’t let the second graders use the bathroom. If one goes, they all want to go and we just don’t have time.” At the base of Maslow’s hierarchy are those things that make a human physically able to participate in, or enjoy, a learning experience.

Being realistic about these needs may mean offering a snack break for children who’ve traveled a long distance to visit your institution before touring them. It certainly means allowing them to use water fountains and bathrooms. It also means being aware that some school children are used to eating lunch as early as 10 a.m. Trying to interest them in your favorite painting as their lunchtime draws near is an exercise in futility.

One of the most underestimated of these basic needs is the need for water. Thirst is a big distraction. Especially in outdoor environments such as zoos, gardens, and nature centers, visitors should be encouraged to bring bottled water or water should be provided. Of course, a long ride on a hot school bus can produce the same effect, and all museum visitors should be given access to water fountains. One of the first symptoms of dehydration in young children, whom it affects more quickly than teens and adults, is “fussiness.” Before you decide to re-design your tour, offer your visitors a drink of water.

Safety Needs

Once physiological needs are reasonably well-satisfied, a new set of needs emerges. Maslow called these “safety needs,” and they include such things as security, freedom from fear or anxiety, and a need for structure and limits. In the museum setting, safety needs can be addressed in a variety of ways. Certainly, a friendly greeting as visitors meet their docent guide and a recitation of the expectations of the tour begin to allay fears for children and inexperienced museum-goers. Adults may want to know the approximate length of time the tour requires, and if they are free to leave the tour or re-join it should they decide to do so. With children, especially, it is important to outline the structure of the tour and to assure them that they will be taken care of until it is time to return to their school. Where uniformed guards are present, it is often useful to explain their protective presence, as some children are fearful of such authority figures. Questions about security cameras, metal detectors, and other such devices should be answered so as not to increase a child’s fear, but to assure him that he is in a safe environment.

Children are frequently afraid of getting lost, consequently, a floor plan and/or map of the facility is a good visual tool to use in explaining where the tour will go and what it will encompass. Young children may be afraid of having “accidents,” and should be assured that they will be given time for bathroom and water breaks. A brief explanation of the goals, routes, and methods of the tour can reassure teens who might be fearful of “doing or saying the wrong thing” and being publicly humiliated.

Another very important aspect of the “safety needs” is a child’s confidence in the person who is leading them. Docents who do not have control of their group or tour can create fear in a child that will make him unable to learn about, or appreciate, what he is seeing. Adults, too, fail to learn in situations where they have little or no confidence in their instructor. A docent who is confident and who leads a well-structured, well-ordered tour can help her charges move beyond safety needs and into the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Belongingness and Love Needs

Realistically, of course, a docent leading a 45-minute tour isn’t going to be able to fulfill a visitor’s needs for belongingness and love any more than she will be able to feed all the hungry children or bring about world peace. However, recognizing that the need to belong and be loved is as strong as the need to be fed, or to feel safe, a docent can take actions that make it easier for her audience to connect with her and her tour. Visitors need to feel a part of the group, if only for a little while. Therefore, we need to ask questions that are inclusive, that allow everyone to feel that they can participate. We need to welcome diversity (of people, points-of-view, and response to the collection), and applaud creativity. We need to find something to like about everyone in the group (even the rebellious teenager, who may be demonstrating a need for approval and attention).

Since love and belonging are needs that work both ways (the defined need involves both giving and receiving affection), allowing visitors to feel a part of the group has immediate results. A visitor who feels that he or she belongs will respond in kind. Children and teens, particularly, who do not feel a part of your group will cling to any group that accepts them. Creating a welcoming, embracing climate will satisfy the need to belong for most visitors and will take them a step closer to being able to appreciate what you have to say and show.

Esteem Needs

The last of Maslow’s deficiency needs is the desire for self-esteem and the esteem of others. Visitors to our institutions who already feel self-confident, worthy, capable, and useful nevertheless must have these feelings validated in order to be ready to explore and appreciate the new experiences we offer. Visitors who lack these qualities, like many teenagers, will require additional feelings of safety and reassurance.

The techniques of inquiry teaching and active learning are especially valuable in promoting or validating self-esteem. When appropriately constructed, open-ended questions that allow for multiple answers, for example, give visitors the freedom and confidence to participate in discussion when they don’t have all the information, specific knowledge, or background. Carefully structured questions that demonstrate to visitors how to observe, compare, analyze, and evaluate objects or specimens will provide them with skills and processes that build their self-confidence. Visitors learn that they are able to learn and that their thoughts have validity.


Fulfilling this final one of the deficiency needs, according to Maslow and later writers, makes it possible for an individual to move on to begin to act upon the growth needs. When he first proposed his hierarchy, Maslow identified only one growth need, that of “self-actualization,” and he characterized self-actualized individuals as: being problem-focused; incorporating a continuing appreciation of life; a concern for their own growth; and the ability to have peak experiences.

Later, he added two lower-level growth needs that are of particular relevance to museum educators. They are cognitive and aesthetic needs. It is in these areas that museums and other such facilities offer visitors the first best steps toward realizing their full potential as human beings.

Using the authentic objects of our collections, and helping visitors develop the critical thinking skills necessary to explore and appreciate such objects, can satisfy both cognitive and aesthetic needs. It is in these areas that docents are typically trained. We construct tours that help our visitors demonstrate cognitive skills and knowledge they already possess; we teach them the process of knowledge construction by helping them learn to observe, analyze, and evaluate what they are seeing; and we guide them in generating knowledge that is new both to us and to them. As we help them develop greater cognitive skills, we also bring them to an aesthetic appreciation of history, art, and science.

In other words, after we’ve met those pesky deficiency needs, we can do what we’re trained to do. Only then can we help our visitors explore and appreciate our collections . . . important steps as they seek individual self- actualization .

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Getting Down to Basics,” The Docent Educator 13.1 (Autumn 2003): 18-20.

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