The American Museum in Britain
The American Museum in Britain is a museum of American decorative arts displayed through a series of room settings from the late 17th century to the eve of the Civil War. Located in Bath, England, the American Museum in Britain also maintains an outstanding collection of textiles, as well as folk art and Native American Indian galleries.
The “public face” of the museum is run by 125 docents. The majority of our docents are women, though the number of men are growing. Ages range from 18 – 85, but the majority are 50 – 70. Many have been with us since the 1960’s and 70’s, and have made the museum their “unpaid career.” Docents are mainly recruited by word of mouth, but we have also enlisted through a local volunteer bureau and the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society. Most recent recruits are retired professionals, especially teachers, not all of whom want to conduct educational tours!
Training consists of room studies, lectures, workshops, and much “shadowing” of other docents, but those who start mid-season are often thrown in at the deep end. We are fortunate to have a wonderful museum library so docents are expected to be self-motivated. We don’t have a formal evaluation procedure, and rely on visitor surveys, teachers’ comments, and post-tour discussions to lead to changes and improvements. Education is fundamental to our museum’s philosophy. The education department deals with formal education from kindergarten to university and beyond, but the museum also offers a lively program of workshops and events on craft or historical themes to the general public. Docents have been involved in the running of some of the craft workshops and special children’s events.
The museum receives approximately 50,000 visitors per year, of whom 10,000 come through the education department. The latter is staffed by an education officer, assistant, and 28 docents who are booked for tours and activities. Many of our docents do not give tours, but are based in one room or gallery.
The school’s program is heavily influenced by the British National Curriculum. Introduced in the late 1980’s, it has had a deep effect on aU British museums; adapt or die. Our numbers have fallen because we have seemingly limited relevance to the new curriculum. The majority of our education group visits are by high school students studying the native American Indians as part of the history curriculum. The National Curriculum, however, is not just about subject matter, but skills, and our tours and our object handling and costume activities are also aimed at developing pupils’ skills of observation, communication, recording, and the evaluation of sources. This has proved very challenging for our docents, many of whom started in the days when all that most teachers wanted was a “nice day out.” Now, teachers are very demanding because all school visits have to be justified in terms of the National Curriculum.
We are currently developing programs to attract schools to use our collections to teach the Art, Craft, and Design curriculum. We are the ideal place for them to visit with our wide variety of media, and the different cultures and time periods represented in our collection. They just don’t know it yet!
We initially offered a program for primary schools (5-11 year olds). The tours are very interactive, with each docent touring just a few pupils and concentrating on a selection of ten objects or working in “expert” groups focusing on just one media, e.g. – textiles, pottery, or furniture. We have also adapted our current object-handling and costume sessions to give them more of an art focus.
Christina Parker is the education officer and guides organiser at the American Museum in Britain, located in Bath, England.
Parker, Christina. “The American Museum in Britain,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 5.
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