Docent Educator Logo

Imagine That!: Participation and Imagination

Once upon a time, my husband and I and three friends visited Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home on the banks of the Hudson River in Tarrytown, New York. Like many historic homes, Sunnyside offers particular challenges to a docent that wants to allow visitors to “participate” in the experience. The home’s rooms are tiny, our group of 5 constituted half of the group size allowed on any one tour. The room’s furnishings, most of which actually belonged to Irving, are static and somewhat mundane. Nevertheless, we had the good fortune to encounter a docent that had developed techniques that allowed us to use our imaginations when actual hands-on participation wasn’t possible. Docents who work in similar situations could learn from his model.

Our guide wore a frock coat and top hat and carried a cane. His costume immediately, and without a word, helped us move in our imaginations back to the 1830’s and ’40’s when Irving lived in the area he used as the setting for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” After he greeted us, we strolled along a wide, rock-edged path under enormous chestnut trees to a spring-fed brook. This romantic setting, and the slowed pace, were perfect for beginning a brief discussion of the “romantic” writer’s life and his acquisition of the property. In fact, our docent asked us to imagine ourselves back in time, walking or riding in a carriage along this path, soon to be welcomed to his home by Mr. Irving himself.

Guided imagery continued as we entered the house. In Irving’s study, we were asked to picture the writer working at his desk, morning light streaming in as he completed his definitive series on the life of George Washington. The leather-bound set of these and others of Irving’s works, and a charming lithograph of the young Washington Irving meeting his namesake, became more than just artifacts in a museum as we were helped to envision these three parts of the story. Through the effective use of descriptive adjectives and adverbs, our docent helped us feel the awe experienced by the child in the picture as he met the famous general. We could almost feel Washington’s hand upon our heads!

The tour narrative was frequently interrupted as our guide paused while a train rumbled past only a few yards from the house. The docent didn’t comment on this aspect of the tour, however, until we reached an upstairs room with a glorious view of the river. We didn’t have to imagine the disruption the train made, but we were easily able to picture Irving’s dismay when the first train tracks were laid and trains began to rattle and whistle and belch coal all over his new property in the early 1830’s. We easily understood when our docent explained that the bedroom on the opposite side of the house was Irving’s second choice. When we peered into that room, our docent’s brief history of a reclining chair there helped us see the place where, years later, Irving died.

As we carefully descended narrow back stairs to the kitchen and separate living quarters Irving had created for his Irish immigrant house staff, our docent’s voice took on a subtle Irish Hit. As he spoke of the safety of the kitchen — no open hearth here — and the convenience of an unusual, but effective, hot water system, we could almost hear those Irish voices of long ago.

When real, hands-on participation is impossible, there remain a number of ways to involve an audience. Costumes and props are useful in setting a mood for a particular site. Historic homes and sites are naturals for such devices, but other institutions- make good use of them also. Docents at a zoo might wear pith helmets. Botanical garden docents could wear overalls or other “gardening” clothes. Art museum and gallery docents frequently wear some sort of artist’s “smock.”

Some props, such as our docent’s cane, are merely window-dressing. Others can do more than set the scene. Docents in history museums, historic sites, and science museums carry small artifacts, specimens, or reproductions that allow visitors to touch aspects of an exhibit that might otherwise be simply visual. Art museum docents, also, may provide samples of different textured fabrics, carved woods, or pottery chards to help visitors experience the “feel” of painting, sculpture, or decorative arts pieces. Props, too, can be useful in more pragmatic ways. Providing young visitors with binoculars or hand lenses as they move along a nature trail allows them to inspect closely and gives them an opportunity to use scientific equipment and become participants in the action. Guides in outdoor venues often carry first aid kits and plastic bags in which to carry out litter their group may pick up along the trail.

Movement can also help visitors transition from the “real” world into the world of the museum, historic site, aquarium, garden, zoo, or park. Just as our guide at Sunnyside slowed down physically to help us move back in time, imaginary actions can do the same. In a history museum’s costume exhibit, children can “dress” themselves in the clothing of a particular period as the docent shows them each garment. If they can imagine or actually use a button-hook to fasten on a high-button shoe, they are better able to understand the time necessary for the simple job of getting dressed each morning in a past time.

In a history museum where I once worked, first graders re-enacted a bucket brigade in our fire department exhibit by placing a cardboard raindrop into a plastic bucket, passing the bucket along a Une of their friends, dumping the raindrop out into a box decorated to look like a house, and returning the bucket along the line. It was even more fun when we had two bucket brigades. In the same museum, children often “trotted” from the carriage exhibit to their next destination, pretending to pull one of the vehicles they’d just seen.

Striking poses in an art museum lets young visitors move “into” a painting or sculpture. Small groups of children can create a scene from a painting and let their peers guess which painting they are depicting. Another variation might have children imagining a painting or photograph’s subject in the minutes following the creation of a scene. Assuming the position of a figure that is presented off balance or in motion helps younger visitors understand such concepts as movement and dynamic tension in “motionless” works of art. Two students might pretend to be an artist and his/her model and create an imaginary conversation between the two as they act their respective roles. In interpreting more abstract or contemporary art, students might use their hands or whole bodies to create movement they think a particular painting exemplifies.

Telling folktales or stories to audiences activates imaginations. People envision characters, settings, and events as they learn more about other times, places, and cultures. Very young children can help propel the story by making sound effects or animal noises to accompany the telling.

While docents usually have no trouble finding ways to help young visitors participate by imagining, our guide at Sunnyside proved that such techniques are equally useful with adult groups. Guided imagery is non-threatening … no one knows if you are really participating or not. Costumes and props, voice and movement all let even the most timid visitor become part of the action. And, becoming part of the action is what makes a museum visit something to remember.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Imagine That!: Participation and Imagination,” The Docent Educator 12.1 (Autumn 2002): 18-19.

Leave a Reply

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