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It Works for Me 9.1

“On Being a Docent”

We first greet the students. Their tour has begun.
“Keep hands at your side, no chewing, don’t run.”

I must keep them together — don’t let them stray.
Give each one a chance to have his or her say.

I have to be sure that I look in their faces
while taking their minds to wonderful places.

I must stay controlled as they giggle and jest
when confronted by Gasont Lachaise’s big breasts.

Speak in moderate tones. Don’t whisper nor yell.
So much to remember. So much to tell.

How much of what I know should I share?
Can I put it succinctly? Can I make it clear?

What shall I tell them of this piece of art?
What’s most important? Where shall I start?

“Is this painting balanced or is it askew?
What do you see? Is it speaking to you?

If this piece of sculpture were a music box
Would the music be quiet or would it be rock?

Take a deep breath. What do you smell?
It’s going to rain. How can you tell?

Does that tree seem happy or does it look sad?”
Do my questions to them make me seem mad?

So much of importance I need to recall.
I’m remembering nothing — nothing at all.
But wait!

Most of these kids are perceptive and smart.
What I need to do is give them a start.

On them I’ll depend to help me to see
How much of a teacher or student to be.

They, after all, have a whole lot to teach.
I’ll let them show me — no need to preach.

They, after all, have a whole lot to say.
I’ll act as their guide while they show me the way.

Now, what shall I tell them of this piece of art?
What’s most important?” Where shall I start?

Geri Smith, docent, Harn Museum of Art, Gainesville, FL

On Being a Docent…

Last summer, my visiting five-year-old grandson said to me, “Granny, I think you’re too old to work at the Gallery.” When I asked what gave him that idea, he said, “Well, sometimes when you’re hanging one of those big pictures you might slip and hurt yourself”

At first I was simply amused that my grandson thought I was hanging pictures in the Gallery. But then I began to wonder, “Is this a message? Is that idea of stepping on a ladder a metaphor for other ways I could be slipping up as a docent?” For instance, was I giving the same old tours month after month, always promising myself that I would work up something new, but never doing it? Did every tour have a theme, and did I make sure that everything covered fit into that theme? Did I announce the theme at the beginning of the tour and review it at the end? (Now I found myself on somewhat shaky ground.)

During public tours, did I make a point of finding out how knowledgeable my group was and did I manage to talk in a manner that was not above the heads of the inexperienced members, while not talking down to the more experienced? (Help! Now my introspection was getting impossible.) Did I involve the group in the discussion by asking them open-ended questions? Did I even know what an open-ended question was!? Did I manage to cover all the main rooms and to finish in the modern or contemporary galleries? (In an hour? Give me a break!)

I’U tell you one thing right now. If that kid comes to visit me next summer, I’m going to be very careful about where I take him. There’s no telling what he’ll say, and I don’t want to have to deal with any more metaphors!

Submitted anonymously by a docent serving at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

Smith, Geri. “It Works for Me…,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 13.

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