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Learning from Others

When you became a subscriber to The Docent Educator, you joined a large and growing cadre of educators — staff members and volunteers — who are striving to improve the quality of education in museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens. Every three months, this publication serves as a mini-convention, bringing you ideas, techniques, and insights from educators throughout our profession who confront many of the same challenges you manage at your institution.

To celebrate our eighth year of publishing The Docent Educator, we decided to highlight a few of our subscribers that you may not know. We hoped that by learning how these professionals view their work, grapple with challenges, and allocate scarce resources, you would gain a better overview of the profession as well as a broader understanding of your place, role, and function within the larger community of docent educators.

Today, docents implement public programming in institutions all over the world. Education – tours, outreach activities, and classes – has become the pre-eminent enterprise of museums from England to South Korea. Whether working with school groups or seniors, docents throughout the world are challenged to teach about institutional collections and sites, serve as institutional representatives, and stimulate the public’s curiosity and interest.

A Broader Perspective

As a staff member or volunteer in North America, you might not be surprised to learn that our subscribers represent facilities from Miami, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska, and from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, British Columbia. But, did you ever imagine that The Docent Educator is read by docents in Perth, Australia, or County Tyrone, Northern Ireland? Or, that the Hong Kong Museum of Art is among our group subscribers, distributing multiple copies of the journal to their volunteers?

Through The Docent Educator, you can communicate with educators in all types of institutions, from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, VA; the British Museum in London, England; and the Art Institute of Chicago, to such unexpected settings as the Los Angeles Public Library; the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore; and the Canadian Opera Company, in Toronto, Ontario. You can speak with, or hear from, representatives of institutions as large as the Smithsonian complex in Washington, D.C. (which consists of 14 museums and the National Zoological Park), or as small as the Old Schoolhouse Museum in Goldie, ID, which has just one volunteer staff member.

A Closer Look

As an educator, you hold a most important and consequential position. An excellent teacher can inspire others to interest and beyond … a poor teacher could prompt others to retreat or even revile. Therefore, it is essential that you remain alert for new or different ideas that can make your teaching and public programming stronger.

Consider the many ways that institutions prepare docents for their responsibilities. A few of the institutions we surveyed provide their docents with only a few contact hours of training and, then, hand them a script. More typical, however, were the institutions that did not rely upon scripted tours. Training in these locations consisted of both subject-matter content and teaching methods and techniques.

After a three-day training session, the Historic Annapolis Foundation, in Annapolis, Maryland, puts their volunteers directly into action. At the Kelowna Art Gallery, in Kelowna, British Columbia, docents receive four, four-hour training sessions and teach for no less than two months with a senior docent before touring on their own. Following this first year’s training, Kelowna Art Gallery docents receive periodic training updates to stay current on new exhibitions and teaching strategies. Docents serving the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, on the other hand, receive 126 hours of classroom training and then must accomplish 10 hours of touring practice before they are allowed to teach independently.

Ironically, institutions with the toughest requirements for docent training seem to have the least problem recruiting and retaining docents. Consider The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The M. I. A. asks docent applicants to make a five-year commitment to their program before joining — two years of training followed by three years of touring (with a minimum of 40 tours per year).

Each year, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts places a call for docents in museum publications and the local newspapers. People who respond have their names placed on a list, and are sent a letter and an application form. The requirements of the training course and expectations thereafter are explained in this letter, as well as the qualities needed to be a docent.

If the applicant remains interested, he or she requests an interview time and commits to attending one of three information sessions. At the interview, prospects are told, once again, of the five-year commitment, including two years of training before touring on their own as an M.I.A. docent. The entire interview committee, which consists of docents (one from the most recent class, the docent chair, and a long-term docent with 15 years or more of experience) and staff members, participates in the information sessions. Recruits have an opportunity to ask questions and participate in an inquiry-based discussion of an art work.

Those who are selected from the applicant pool and accepted into the M.I.A. docent training program sign a letter of agreement, which details duties and responsibilities, and are asked to submit a picture and brief paragraph about themselves. These are placed on a bulletin board in the docent study and each trainee is selected by a senior docent who becomes a “big buddy.”

Throughout their training, docents are routinely videotaped while making oral presentations before their classmates and receive a one-on-one conference with staff members who critique their talk. .Diane Levy, who retired this summer as Supervisor of Tours and School Services after 20 years at the Institute, describes videotaping and critiquing as, “… one of our best innovations. We’ve done it now for about 10 years. Staff begins by taping themselves to lessen the fear.” Docents also critique themselves, using special, self-critiquing forms.

As for teaching methods, most institutions we contacted employ a combination of inquiry (questioning techniques) and exposition (lectures). Historic Annapolis relies upon scripted tours when working with older children and adults, while using inquiry techniques with younger children’s tours. Less typical is The Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, which offers inquiry-type tours to all age groups. Docents at The Minnesota Museum of American Art also participate in media experiences, learning first-hand about the process of making prints and photographs, drawings, sculptures, and paintings so that they have knowledge of practice, as well as product.

Most docents are evaluated in some form or another. While the videotaping mentioned above is less common, many institutions provide visitors and groups with evaluation forms so that they may comment on the quality of their guided experience. At the Woodland Park Zoo, docents also conduct informal evaluations of their peers. Docents at the New Orleans Museum of Art participate in open discussions and evaluations with fellow docents at the conclusion of their touring responsibilities for the day.

Many of the institutions we canvassed are trying to extend their modest financial resources. The Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (two totally independent entities) collaborate on school mailings to save on printing and mailing costs. They send out one, joint mailing. Their handsomely-designed packet presents teachers with two, similarly formatted, yet independently produced, brochures held within one folder. Each brochure describes its respective institution’s collection, educational philosophy, and programming, as well as presenting its institutional mission statement.

Give and Take

As you read this issue — and learn of your colleagues’ ideas, programs, institutions, and challenges — we ask you to participate in a future issue of The Decent Educator. It is in the best tradition of educators to share their successes and failures. “Why re-invent the wheel?” as the expression goes. We hope you will use this journal as YOUR professional network. Like those who presented themselves in this and previous issues, we invite you to contribute your anecdotes, ideas, and articles and make a contribution to teaching in all our museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Learning from Others,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 2-4.

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