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Revamping, Researching, and Reciting Focus Tours

Once-a-week walk-in tours at the Wichita Art Museum in Wichita, Kansas, have evolved into weekly Sunday Gallery Talks attracting visitors with specific interests, as well as the general public. Originally, the subject of these focus tours was whatever the decent “on duty” wanted to speak about on any given day.


When we changed the name of the tours, we also gave them a more defined purpose in hopes of attracting people who had specific areas of interest. Specific topics made the tours easier to advertise and more likely to receive notice in our local newspaper’s calendar of events. The weekly format also provided us with greater regularity and recognition for the program.

Over the past year, our topics have included a walk-through of newly-installed exhibitions; highlights of a single work of art; thematic tours such as “beach scenes” for a summer Sunday and “prosperity” for Thanksgiving; and artistic styles such as 19th Century landscapes and abstract expressionism.

In an effort to reach new audiences and to tackle unique subjects, we invite people in the community to participate as “guest docents.” For instance, the zoo’s curator of education enlivened an exhibition of 19th Century woodcarving of eagles with a talk about the living bird. A high school art teacher has agreed to discuss student art during the annual high school art competition.


In selecting topics for Sunday Gallery Talks, I try to keep in mind the various interests, knowledge, and comfort zones of our docents. Most docents are interested in a number of specialized topics and are willing to tackle a new challenge. Before they became docents, each member of our group was required to research, write about, and present one object in the Museum’s collection! Many of these projects have been turned into Sunday Gallery Talks. I encourage docents to become the “resident expert” on a subject and provide them with direction. Our librarian is extremely helpful in assisting with their research.

Possible topics are listed on a sign-up sheet. More than one docent can sign up for a topic, allowing greater flexibility when finalizing the calendar. Docents put their names beside the topics they are interested in presenting and indicate the dates they are available.


The following guide is intended to help docents prepare for their Sunday Gallery Talks:

It is important that drop-in tours have regularity and focus. Advertising the specific topics through press releases, our members’ newsletter, and the Web site has helped our program to grow. Even so, we might have as few as one person or as many as 20 people show up, with an average of about eight per tour. We even have a couple of regulars. Docents don’t just give these tours, they’re some of our best customers! They love to hear what the expert-du-jour has to say.

Checklist for Preparing Gallery Talks

  • Brainstorm topics.
  • Provide a sign-up sheet for docents on which they can indicate their interest and availability.
  • Outline a “How to Prepare for Your Gallery Talk” handout for the docents.
  • Inform your public relations officer about the talks for press releases, newsletters, and the Web site.
  • Put a sheet in your volunteer book where docents can record the number of people who came to the talk.
  • Have signage made for display on the day of the talk.

Sample Guide to Help Docents Preparing Gallery Talks

Your Sunday Gallery Talk begins promptly at 1:30 p.m. at the 2nd floor welcome desk. The security staff should put out a sign announcing its availability.

The topic is purposely narrow. You are supposed to delve into your subject. Hopefully, you picked a subject that is particularly interesting to you — or one about which you are just plain curious. Take this opportunity to learn more. Become the resident expert on your subject. Make an appointment with the Museum’s librarian. She is more than happy to help you.

Gallery Talks last 25-30 minutes. Most, if not all, participants are adults. As with any tour, you should welcome your guests and explain your topic:

“I’m so glad to see you all here today. Our topic is Greek and Roman influences in American art.” It will behoove you to find out why visitors are interested in the topic. Wouldn’t it be nice to know ahead of time if someone on your Greek and Roman tour is a Classics professor?! Use their knowledge to add to your tour.

Visitors, even savvy ones, really need help becoming oriented in the Museum. They will want to know what they are going to see. Briefly outline the tour for them:

“We’re going to go to the 3″^floor galleries and look at several artworks created in the 19” Century at the peak of Neoclassicism. We’ll be spending time in our Americans Abroad gallery, which contains paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts by Americans who went to Europe to study and/or live. 1 hope you will consider this an informal tour and feel free to interject your knowledge where appropriate. The tour will last 25-30 minutes.”

Have a mental list of three or four objectives you want to accomplish. These are things you want to be sure visitors know when they leave the Museum. These are usually simple, but salient, points:

  • Classical art is defined as . . . . Therefore, Neoclassicism is . . . .
  • 18* Century archeological digs in Pompeii and Herculaneum increased interest in Classical art (by artists, writers, historians, etc.)
  • In America, artists could study plaster copies of these ancient sculptures by 1802 or 1803.
  • Artists and architects have long copied ancient statuary in the white marble format. Originally, however, such sculptures were painted polychrome to mimic nature’s colors.

End your tour on time, but feel free to stay and chat with interested visitors. Be sure to tell them next week’s Sunday Gallery Talk topic and invite them back.

Keep track of how many people come to your talk and record it in the volunteer sign-in book.

Alyson B. Stansfield has been the director of education at the Wichita Art Museum, where she works with approximately 50 “wonderful” docents, since 1998. Prior to this, she served as curator of education at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma (1995-98) and curator at the Oklahoma City Art Museum (1991-95).

Stansfield, Alyson B. “Revamping, Researching, and Reciting Focus Tours,” The Docent Educator 10.3 (Spring 2001): 14-16.


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