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Targeting One’s Fellow Docents

To target knowledgeable, talkative docents as an audience is an educational challenge. How do you teach the teacher? It you have given a tour for a group of educators, you know that they can be a tough audience. After attending the National Docent Symposium, the docents in North Carolina decided to organize a statewide docent symposium and take on the challenge.

The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh hosted the first state symposium in 1997, modeled after the National Docent Symposium. The Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte organized the second biennial North Carolina Docent Symposium, which was held March 26-27, 2000. The purpose of the symposium was education of and interaction with attending docents in order that they might better interpret at their individual institutions. Docents from history, science, art, and natural history institutions attended informative workshops and enjoyed times of fellowship.

To transpose a national model to the regional level requires an understanding of the needs and interests of local docents. Guided by the evaluations of the previous state symposium, the Mint docents compiled a list of possible topics for workshops and then mailed a survey to North Carolina museums. The regional survey resulted in suggestions for speakers and topics. The majority of the North Carolina museums are small historic sites that do not have the resources to send docents or staff to the national symposium. They were eager and hungry for an educational experience and the opportunity to meet other docents with similar concerns.

A symposium is an organic experience that molds to fit the specific concerns of the docents and local environment of the host institution. A state or regional symposium has a different audience than the national model. Most attendees at the national symposium historically are from larger, predominately art-oriented museums. As a larger institution in North Carolina, the Mint docents were surprised that many museums in our region did not have organized docent programs. Over half of the museums represented were history museums. Many sent a staff person who coordinated docents and interpreted the collection along with other responsibilities. There were 130 participants from thirty different institutions with individual concerns.

Symposium Topics

At the beginning of a new millennium, it was fitting that our symposium theme was “Honor the Past and Welcome the Future.” This theme also defined the radical changes and urban transformation of Charlotte. The Mint Museum of Art doubled in size this past year with the opening of a new facility at a separate location, the Mint Museum of Craft + Design. The symposium offered optional bus tours of downtown Charlotte, Museum of the New South, Discovery Place, Historic Rosedale Plantation, the Mint Museum of Art, and the Mint Museum of Craft + Design.

Food is a Southern vehicle for hospitality and encouraging conversation. Our official opening was a dinner at the museum. Danielle Rice, Senior Curator of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the keynote speaker. She discussed such issues as how one can tell if a tour has been successful and the impact docents can have on how visitors think, notice, and learn.

To teach docents effectively, learning needs to be experiential and interactive. Participants selected from a menu of topics and workshop offerings, each utilizing a different delivery style. For instance, in the workshop Terms of Engagement: Interactive Gallery Teaching for Adults, Carolyn Woods, educator for university audiences at the Ackland Art Museum, modeled interactive teaching strategies for engaging adult audiences in thoughtful conversations about art. In the workshop Using Multiple Intelligences, docents became active participants playing a “Latin American Cultural Exchange” game or pretending to be an archaeologist in a computer program.

Educators from the Schiele Museum of Natural History and Planetarium and Carolina Raptor Center brought a falcon and an alligator, which caught the attention and curiosity of every docent. And, the workshop Museums to Go: Creating a Wider Audience challenged docents to move beyond the walls of their institutions with their collections and expertise.

Empowering Docents

The Mint docents accomplished their goal of a state symposium with research and hard work. The staff of the Mint Museum of Art supports the docents’ role in enhancing their own education. Mint docents are considered members of the education division staff and empowered to assume leadership and responsibility in their educational programs. They form study groups, research committees and a mentor program, as well as attend conferences.

Marty Clark, the N.C. Docent Symposium chair and southeast regional director of the National Docent Symposium, organized a committee of eight docents to plan the symposium. Logistics also required a clear relationship between museum staff and volunteers. The staff served as advisors and troubleshooters, but the symposium chair assumed the leadership role of coordinating the symposium committee.

Empowering the docents to organize a symposium resulted in a successful educational experience for docents and staff across our state and a source of great pride for Mint docents and staff The symposium committee had successfully accomplished their goal to “promote continued education of and interaction with docents.” A final evaluation gave an opportunity to attendees to suggest new topics and to make recommendations for the next biennial docent symposium. The baton for the N.C. Docent Symposium has now been passed to the docents at the Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in New Bern, who will adapt the symposium to their own unique strengths and environment.

Susan S. Perry has been the docent coordinator at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C. for the past eight years. Ms. Perry received a B.A. in art and English from Agnes Scott College, a M.F.A. in drawing and painting from California State University, Long Beach, CA, and an M.A. in English from University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She serves as the Southeast Regional Director of AAMV.

Perry, Susan S. “Targeting One’s Fellow Docents,” The Docent Educator 10.1 (Autumn 2000): 16-17.

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