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Mastering Blockbusters

Blockbusters — mention the very word and a universal groan can be heard throughout “docent land.” Hearts beat fast and palms grow clammy, as thoughts of learning about hundreds of unfamiliar objects in three hours race through the minds of volunteers.

Well, fear no longer, for there are ways to combat these anxiety attacks. The first is to focus on positive attributes of preparing for a Blockbuster; the second is to visualize the exhibition as a large puzzle just waiting for you to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

Since Blockbusters can cause even the most confident docent to break into a cold sweat, let’s begin by investigating some positive aspects of large-scale exhibitions. It is important to recognize the fabulous opportunities that touring a Blockbuster provides. Blockbusters generate a lot of pre- and post-opening excitement, and this energy can have an invigorating effect on your tours. In addition, the introduction of new information can be extremely energizing.

Think about the rewards of learning interesting material perhaps not found in your museum’s permanent collection. You may find yourself brushing up on information studied years ago, or learning about new material that, though interesting, may never have crossed your path otherwise. And, remember that you can apply what you’ve learned from the Blockbuster later in other situations. Looking at a new culture or different historical period will cause you to think about your museum’s collection in new and different ways.

Now that we have considered some of the positive aspects of blockbusters, let’s look at some practical ways of dealing with these large-scale exhibitions. The most effective method for “mastering” a Blockbuster is to visualize the exhibition as a large puzzle that must be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. Methods to gain mastery of the information include: reading the exhibition catalogue, recording the docent-training session, studying the exhibition by its themes, and, most importantly, brainstorming ideas with other docents. Using one or all of these methods will help you approach your tours of the Blockbuster with confidence.

Reading is one of the easiest ways to begin mastering large areas of unfamiliar information. The catalogue is a logical place to introduce yourself to the exhibition’s objects. The images contained within the catalogue, accompanied by the text, should give you a solid working foundation. You may also want to immerse yourself in the exhibition’s culture, language, philosophy, music, literature, history, art, and/or religion by pursuing background information provided in the catalogue’s bibliography, or by conducting research at your public or museum library. Along with gaining background information, the organization of the catalogue should offer ideas about themes for touring.

More theme ideas and mastery of material can be gained by taping (either video or audio) the curator or educator who discusses the exhibition. Knowing that every word is being recorded will allow you to actually look at and think about the objects instead of the lines on your note pad. The tape serves as a great reference tool to review about a week after the exhibition opens; listen to the tape to gather information you may have missed, to answer any questions that may have come up, and to give you new ideas for sharpening your tours.

Tour themes can be generated by mastering themes presented within the Blockbuster itself. Since many Blockbuster shows are divided thematically, learning these overriding ideas will help guide you through the exhibition puzzle. Begin to gain confidence by knowing one object from each section very well. Once the first tour is under your belt, go back to learn other pieces from each section. Continue this process until you feel a sense of mastery. You will never grow bored because you will have so many objects from which to choose. Additionally, knowing the objects by theme will help you in a crunch when there are logistical problems in the exhibition or crowds prevent your group from seeing the object you planned to discuss. Understanding an exhibition by themes allows your tour to flow, gives it cohesiveness, and will transform your Blockbuster puzzle into a more complete work of art.

As your awareness of this Blockbuster grows, sit down with other docents (as many as possible) to brainstorm and evaluate. This method is very effective when mastering the complex art of the Blockbuster exhibition, and at the same time is the easiest and least time consuming. It can also be fun!

Questions to consider when brainstorming include: How can you adapt your tours for special interest and multi-cultural groups that the Blockbuster attracts? Which themes work well, and which do not? How can you move tours easily through the exhibition when there are large crowds? How can you get through everything you set out to do? Which pieces will be most popular and why? Are there any controversial pieces, and when should they be avoided? Has anything humorous come up that enhances your tour? Play with these ideas to gain greater insight on the Blockbuster.

When the exhibition closes, say “good-bye” to your new-found friends, and congratulate yourself on learning a lot of new information in such a brief period of time. When the next Blockbuster opens, remember to read, tape, gain insight into the exhibition’s theme, and to brainstorm ideas with other docents. But before you begin the process again, remember to think positively to generate energy and excitement personally, and among the rest of your docent corps.

Ann M. Moore is the Associate Curator of Education for the New Orleans Museum of Art, where they have been hosting a succession of Blockbuster exhibitions over the past several years. Previously. Ms. Moore worked for SPECTRA Communication Associates, a management communication consulting firm specializing in listening and creativity skills.

Moore, Ann M. “Mastering Blockbuster,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 4-5.

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