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Notes on Gallery Teaching

Why do we as museum educators and docents believe fiercely in the value of gallery talks with adults? Simply stated, because we have seen them work. We have had visitors tell us that having someone “explain the objects'” or show them “what to look for” has changed their lives. Such dramatically positive reactions, though not daily occurrences, have convinced me that nothing can replace an experience in front of the actual object. But why are such experiences important?

My basic premise has always been that if we can get people involved in looking carefully and thinking critically, taking a tour becomes an active rather than a passive endeavor, and thus a powerful learning experience. In order to create an active learning environment, one must entice the audience into looking and thinking. Begin by briefly describing the object in front of you, thus encouraging your visitors to notice both details and overall effects. Help them to read the objects” meaning or importance from what they can see. Once your visitors have focused on the tangible object and begun to view it as something that encourages them to feel and think you can expand the discussion by bringing in history, biography, etc.

How else can you keep you audience involved? Set out for them at the beginning of your tour what you intend to do, what the purpose of the tour is, and what you want them to learn. Also, let them know questions are welcome. In an unfamiliar setting where they may feel somewhat ill at ease, people often need to be encouraged to ask for more explanation. Then be sure to repeat questions so that the entire group feels included and benefits from your answers. If you prefer to take questions only after you’ve made your points, tell your audience. But, remember to invite their questions at the appropriate time.

An effective tour is well-organized, with only three or four important ideas to communicate. Briefly summarize those ideas to reinforce their importance as you conclude each discussion. Transitions, that is, commentary that links ideas or effects already discussed to what is yet to come, are useful educational devices and also give a nice polish to your tour.

By making visual comparisons to works seen earlier, you can encourage your audience to look carefully, and to analyze what they see. Asking visitors to recall something they’ve already seen encourages them to remember and apply what they’ve learned. Discovering differences between objects makes each one’s characteristics more pronounced. And, as we all know, one of the most important goals of a good tour is to help visitors develop the confidence and ability to look and discriminate on their own.

Museum educators and docents should talk about objects in terms that everyone understands. Make comments without using jargon. If you use a specialized term, define it clearly and concisely. Also, offer analogies to methods or objects that are common in most people’s experiences. For instance, referring to the fact that an “x-ray” of two very different works might reveal similarities in their underlying structure – their use of horizontals and verticals – could be useful when explaining composition.

Sadly, museum settings encourage visitors to consider only final, finished objects. In fact, many people are also interested in process. On a tour, you can describe technique. You can even compare techniques, verbally. To show some of the artist’s tools and materials makes this imaginary process more tangible. Some museums include displays of such things or make them available at least to children. But to demonstrate the process involved in creating some of our objects offers insights that cannot be reached in any other way. Recognizing this, we inaugurated a new program, “Anatomy of Art,” at the National Gallery last fall.

The “Anatomy of Art” intends, through demonstrations by artists, gallery talks with lecturers, curators, and conservators, and even sHde lectures and films when possible, to explain technique. This year we focused on the painting techniques of Renaissance and Baroque masters. A great deal is known about different artists’ techniques through research of curators and conservators. The most acclaimed parts of our program, however, were the discussions and displays of artists” materials and, in particular, the recreation of certain paintings. To literally see how Titian built up an image of Venus offered an understanding of both the painting’s tangible existence and on what its greatness is based. We hope to make this month-long program an annual event, ultimately offering sessions on drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and other methods of painting.

Visual analysis in front of objects, discussion of context, concise information, comparisons, references to contemporary life, and consideration of technique are some, but certainly not all of the perspectives that qualify tours as powerful tools of museum learning. At the National Gallery, the object-adult visitor connection brought about through lecture and discussion is a long-standing tradition, ever expanding and constantly reconstituting itself.

Lynn Pearson Russell is Head of Adult Programs at the National Gallery of Art. in Washington, D.C. She has degrees in art history and has lectured and worked with docents for almost twenty years.

Pearson Russell, Lynn. “Notes on Gallery Teaching,” The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 8-9.

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