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Insights into Art: One Museum’s Approach

Ensuring that each child has a positive and meaningful learning experience should be the primary goal of every docent. A variety of presentation methodologies and reinforcement techniques is available to assist art museum docents in pursuit of this goal, several of which are integral parts of a new program called People and Places: Telling Stories Through Art offered by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.

People & Places is a student centered program, based on establishing a climate of mutual respect, trust, and an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance between the docent and his or her group of children. Our docent training provides modeling of appropriate questioning strategies and interactive communication techniques to use in creating a nonthreatening environment where optimal learning can occur.

People & Places was developed by a team of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) consultants and the Education Department of Joslyn Art Museum, working in cooperation with Omaha’s Westside School District.

To prepare children for their museum experience, a mini-trunk containing objects that represent stories and legends from a variety of cultures is sent to the school. Though no docent currently provides an outreach visit with this trunk, outreach visits represent a more ideal way to introduce and orient children to their forthcoming museum experience.

These outreach materials are accompanied by exercises that engage students in participatory activities. They emphasize relationships between people, people and nature, people and time, or people and their activities. When students arrive at the museum, docents continue this theme as they guide young people through the galleries.

Though docents are supplied with background information about specific works, their role is to serve as facilitators rather than expositors, engaging children in interactive interpretation. To be certain that this type of approach is educationally sound and that it remains focused on the art works, children arc asked to tell specifically what it is about the work discussed that leads them to say what they do in their interpretations.

Docents ask questions that help children discover comparison threads between works, that are general to looking, or are specific to the work examined. In developing an approach to Thomas Hart Benton’s The Hailstorm, for example, Joslyn docents consider questioning strategies such as those found in the box on the next page to effectively engage children in the gallery.

The approach used in this program empowers children with the confidence to discuss artworks because all of their ideas and concepts are reinforced as valuable contributions to the group. Docent Ethel Flannigan believes People & Places inspires creativity, mental involvement, and active participation. There is, she told me, ” …eagerness for children to add, get a word in, explain, think, and allow their ideas to ‘catch on.” All the docent has to do is set the stage and let the words flow.

The deductive method allows children to create their own story and to view art with an intuitive reaction; their imaginations are challenged and ideas encouraged.”

Question Types


  • Which directions are the humans facing? What difference does this make?
  • Look at the sky. How does it differ from skies in other works you’ve seen?
  • Does nature seem to be in harmony or discord? What makes you think so? How does this work compare with other nature scenes you’ve looked at?


  • What do you think is happening? What tells you so?
  • What grabs your attention most? How was this element made so important?
  • If you were to make up a story about this painting, what would it be? In what time period would your story take place? What tells you so?


  • Does this look like something you might actually see? Why or why not?
  • What is the relationship among the people, the land, and the sky?
  • Which seems more important in this painting, people or nature? Why?

Carol Wyrick is Curator of Education at Joslyn Art Museum. Omaha. NE. She has a BFA in secondary arts education from Texas Christian University and an MA in Art History from Eastern Washington University. Involved in arts education for over twenty years, she has been a presenter for the Museum Division at the National Art Education Association Annual Conference, and served as a faculty member for Prairie Visions: The Nebraska Consortium for Disciplined-Based Art Education 1991 Summer Institute.

Wyrick, Carol “Insights into Art: One Museum’s Approach,” The Docent Educator 1.1 (Autumn 1991): 14-15.

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