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Tackling Tough Topics

Tough topics lie in wait. They are an inherent and ever-present risk when teaching with any institutional collection. Some can be anticipated; others just happen ╤ a combustible combination of issues, personalities, and happenstance. Tough topics by their very nature can prompt visitor reactions ranging from mild discomfort to outright vehemence. Whether they are perceived to be latent or overt, such issues as nudity, violence, sexism, racism, slavery, evolution, and animal captivity have the potential to ensnare docents in some rather uncomfortable situations.

Ordinarily, the potential for controversy surrounding tough topics remains dormant. Most visitors listen and respond to docents with interest and respect, even when they are experiencing some level of discomfort. However, young children who are unable to contain their reactions, zealots who do not wish to, and others who feel their beliefs are being challenged, may respond in ways that can unsettle prepared docents and make mincemeat of unwitting ones.

Teaching through a visitor’s animated negative response or vocal challenge can be a docent’ s nightmare. No one wants to have a lesson disrupted in ways that are not productive, much less encounter hostility. Nonetheless, it is a fact that education and teaching are not immune to contemporary controversies ╤ even in settings as seemingly benign as museums, zoos, or parks.

As it happens, museums, zoos, and parks are not above the fray, but often squarely in the middle of it. One need only think of the embroilment that took place over the Mapplethorpe photography exhibition, or the emotional entanglements surrounding the ownership of sacred objects and artifacts of Native Americans, to realize how close to the “front lines” museums can be. And, since docents often represent the institutional front line with the general public, they are among those who experience the effects of such confrontations most directly.

A docent’ s first and best line of defense when confronted by a concerned, irate, or agitated visitor is to know the intent and purpose of the institution he or she represents. Only this information legitimately explains the reasons objects or life forms are collected and exhibited as they are and can appropriately shift the discussion away from a personal one.

While it is not necessarily appropriate for educational institutions, or those teaching within them, to tell visitors what to think, both share a responsibility to provide people with access to ideas and material evidence. It is the visitor’s responsibility to put that information and experience into context and to construct meanings.

Institutions can help to embolden docents as they “walk through the mine field of tough topics” by making them feel secure and supported in their teaching. When controversy does arise, a docent should have the confidence to call upon a staff member for support, knowing that the staff member (educator, curator, or director) will come to that docent’ s aid.

Likewise, docents owe the same level of support to the institution in which they serve. Though they may not always be comfortable with every choice their institution makes, they should support it publicly. For instance, docents serving in contemporary arts institutions need not like, nor convince others to like, every work of art the museum chooses to exhibit. It remains the docent’ s duty, however, to support the museum’s choice to present it, and each visitor’s right to examine it in an atmosphere that is both open and judgment-free.

A docent’s use of language while teaching can also help or hinder when treading near tough topics. For instance, docents would be wise to avoid the use of judgmental words lest visitors adopt similar language. This is true even when the judgmental words are adopted in defense of the institution or exhibition. For example, the docent who defends a work of art as “great” or the artist as “well-respected” invites visitors to reply with equal, and perhaps opposite, judgments.

With some groups, docents may find that focusing on material evidence, rather than on concepts, can keep their lesson productive. For example, when working with groups that wish to avoid the topic of evolution, a docent teaching with dinosaur mounts might have visitors compare the physical attributes and dentition of these creatures rather than argue about their age or what they confirm about evolution.

Docents and other educators working in museums, zoos, and parks should not avoid tough topics just because they are emotionally charged or problematic. However, they can lead discussions in ways that respect and accommodate diverse opinions and that keep a time-constrained, limited encounter productive. To accomplish this, docents must receive frequent, intensive training, not only in subject matter content but also in teaching methodology, from the institutions they volunteer to serve. It is only right that those who must walk among tough topics should be well-prepared — aware of the process and techniques that facilitate teaching, knowledgeable of the subject matter, informed as to their institution’s philosophic stance, and confident of its support.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Tackling Tough Topics,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 2-3.

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