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I Remember When This Was a Tree…Helping Teens Create Personal Meaning in the Museum

In order for teenagers to have a personalized museum experience, docents at the Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, contact classroom teachers and, together, establish goals for the museum visit. Frequently, high school teachers are anxious for their students to discover something new at the museum – – to have an enlightening experience where minds are awakened and learning enlivened.

At the MOA, we believe that this happens most effectively in an environment of open interpretation where teenagers are encourage to create personal meaning. That is why MOA docents are encouraged not to predetermine interpretations of art works, but to help teenagers learn how to construct their own “reasoned” interpretations by personally thinking through what they see and are learning about.

Docents are an important part of thinking-centered learning. By requiring students to develop thoughtful answers instead of merely recalling memorized responses, they teach teenagers how to exercise their imaginations and think for themselves. Docents guide students in understanding, questioning, responding, and evaluating information. By involving students in purposeful discourse, the docents guide the discussion rather than act as lecturers.

In a thinking-centered environment docents engage students using carefully planned questions and activities, encouraging their students to make discoveries and express personal judgments. As an integral part of this thoughtful learning, the docents’ task is to create an environment where teenagers may think for themselves.

Last fall, a group of twelve teenage detention students were sent to visit our museum. The docent and classroom teacher had discussed the visit together and hoped that the museum experience would result in some form of personal growth. When the docent met the students she recognized an attitude of indifference. She asked them what they were interested in seeing and gave them a choice — the paintings in the museum’s permanent collection or an exhibition of new print works. One student quickly replied that “we’re not here anyhow to see old stuff.”

The docent took a deep breath and took the students to visit the Utah “Out of Print” Exhibition. The students were paired together and asked to find a print they liked. Then they discussed the work with their partner, describing the print in detail, eventually explaining what they thought it meant.

Two students stood by I Remember When This Was a Tree, by Utah artist Bonnie Sucec. After about ten minutes of looking and discussing the work, they were asked to tell what they saw and explain how they felt. One young man began hesitantly. He described Sucec’s print as a gnarled tree stump with all the branches chopped off before they could begin to grow. The stump looked lonely in an isolated wasteland. He said that it looked desperate; then, he noticed some small shoots at the top of the stump. They appeared weak, but were trying to grow. Continuing, he talked about ecology, about a lack of caring for the Earth, the reckless use of natural resources, and our irreverence for life. He repeated phrases he had heard before. Just as we began to wonder where was he going with this discussion, he stopped and began speaking more personally about the print.

He said that the tree stump was his life. That there was never a chance for him. If there had been a chance, he admitted, he didn’t take it. He was alone and afraid. Then, he said he noticed the new shoots of growth. He said the new shoots represented hope, hope for himself, hope for all of us. He tearfully looked up at his friends. They grabbed him, as if to say, we understand. The docent and the classroom teacher were stunned; the security guards were amazed at his openness. The student had connected personally with the art work.

Undoubtedly, this museum visit contributed to the cultivation of an aesthetic experience, but it did more. Post-modernist philosophy suggests that individual constructing of ideas across the discipline is a meaningful endeavor. This museum encounter went beyond the limits of the experience itself because a docent guided the visit and allowed the student to express himself. Through this thinking experience this teenager discovered himself. He looked at art; then looked within himself.

In essence, education requires an environment in which students are not asked questions for which answers are known; because if the questions involve predetermined conclusions, the process is merely training not thinking. If we consider the models put forth by Plato, Rousseau, and Dewey, for example, it is clear that an accumulation of knowledge and skills is insufficient. What is central to being educated is the ability to creatively solve problems, by learning to think.

While instilling knowledge is obviously not irrelevant, I believe that the more important question is how one enables a student to become an autonomous thinker. Education, to put it a bit tendentiously, is a process that awakens individuals and enables them to imagine conditions other than those that exist or that have existed.

Docents have such a responsibility with visitors, to develop educational initiatives that communicate the intrinsic value and aesthetic significance of art as an expression of human thought, imagination, and creativity. Such a direction fosters an environment of individual and group exploration, discovery, scholarship, and cultural awareness that enlightens teenagers.

Ellen Lockwood Powley is Head of Public Programs at the Brigham Young Museum of Art in Provo, Utah, where she coordinates the education and volunteer programs. Ms. Powley has trained and supervised over one thousand volunteers for two blockbuster exhibitions. A native of Pleasantville, New York, she graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Horn Performance and Music Education. She obtained a Masters of Education from Brigham Young University’ and is currently a Doctoral Student in Educational Leadership.

Powley, Ellen. “I Remember When This Was a Tree…Helping Teens Create Personal Meaning in the Museum,” The Docent Educator 5.4 (Summer 1996): 18-19.


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