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Not You Again! Finding a New Vantage Point

At the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), many docents have been members of the Education Division for over twenty-five years! ! ! Keeping their teaching fresh and enthusiastic is a top priority. This goal presents several obvious challenges, not the least of which is how to stimulate new insights and approaches to some very familiar objects and images.

The best way I have found to sustain or regenerate excitement is to challenge docents to add a creative dimension to their own interpretations when “rereading” familiar objects. Working from ideas found in Roger von Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, I have discovered four ways that help. They are:

  • using metaphors.
  • breaking the rules,
  • asking the question — “what if,” and
  • cross-fertilizing.

Though we use these methods to renew master docents, they can be employed by all docents, regardless of their level of experience, and with a wide variety of institutional collections.

I have chosen to illustrate these techniques using a painting from noma’s permanent collection entitled Composition (1948), by Jackson Pollock. I’ve selected this work because it has been a stalwart of our museum for many years, it is often puzzling to our visitors, and it can present more difficult teaching challenges than other, more traditional paintings.

The first method for regenerating enthusiasm through creative thinking is the use of metaphors. The method involves connecting two ideas that, seemingly, have little or nothing to do with one another.

Devise a metaphor randomly by selecting a word from the dictionary, a magazine, a newspaper, or conversation. Then, apply it to an object or work.

In our example, let’s apply the word “life” to the art work. Composition, How is this painting like “life?” Life’s a mess: it’s filled with drips. Life is confusing; you never know where you’re going next. Life’s a big mystery; it can lead in many directions. Was Jackson Pollock trying to tell us something about life in this painting?

The second technique is to break rules. Some of history’s most creative people are those who challenged the rules. They stood up and asked the question, “Why not do it differently?”

Here are a few rule-breaking questions you might ask yourself when touring:

  • Why move chronologically through your Museum’s collection? Why not begin a tour with the 20th century and end with the Renaissance?
  • What would happen if you toured only works you disliked? Would you find a greater appreciation for them?
  • Why not chose a black and white drawing to illustrate color? Can’t black, white, and gray function as colors, just as red, yellow and blue do?

Now, ask yourself, does Jackson Pollock’s painting break the rules? Creative people also ask the question — “what if?” What if the Earth had no gravity; how would we eat soup? What if oranges were blue; what would we call them? What if dogs could fly; how would it change life for birds?

Apply “what if questions to Composition. What if there were only one drip in the painting? What if the background were black? What if the painting were turned on its side? What if the painting were auditory, rather than visual? What if there was a cow in the middle of it? Another idea for energizing tours is cross-fertilization. Think outside the discipline — consider music, computers, medicine, accounting, gardening or cleaning. What ideas do these fields generate for your tours? Ask yourself the question, “How might people in disciplines other than art tour Jackson Pollock’s painting?” How would a six-year-old tour Pollock’s work? What about a house painter? A pasta maker? What about Michelangelo?

Play with these ideas and allow yourself to be foolish. Ask others to help you. Write your ideas down. Explore possibilities. Don’t be afraid to examine a tangent, or to consider a fleeting thought. And, of course, don’t forget that humor can be a major and positive route toward regenerating your point-of-view and tours, as there often is a close connection between “haha” and “ahah.”

Ann M. Meehan is the Associate Curator of Education for the New Orleans Museum of Art. Previously, she worked for SPECTRA Communication Associates, a management communication consulting firm specializing in listening and creativity skills. Her article, “Mastering Blockbusters,” appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of The Docent Educator.

Meehan, Ann M. “Not You Again!: Finding a New Vantage Point,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 18.

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