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The Docent and the Wheelchair

Many of the people who have the time and the interest to become museum docents are those who are retired from an active business or professional life. That being so, it occasionally occurs that a qualified applicant is disabled or an active docent suffers an illness or accident that limits his or her independent movement through the museum.

It seems a shame that the expertise and the energy of these docents should be subtracted from the museum environment. And such subtraction seems even more unfortunate since it need not occur provided that the museum is accessible to those using a wheelchair or walker. The following examples demonstrate how, with a little flexibility and some adjustments, these disabled docents can function as active tour leaders.

I recently had a chance to consider ways of responding when the docent is no longer able to move about the gallery easily. I had seen the situation modeled when one of our docents developed severe back trouble but wanted to continue with gallery tours of our exhibits. She had physical therapy for several weeks and then asked the physical therapist to help her with a process for returning to the Art Center.

What the therapist and docent came up with was a rolling walker with a seat and a basket attached. The docent used the walker to move around the galleries and the basket to keep her “hands-on touchables” (for demonstrating textures, color combinations, etc.) within close reach. Her therapist also taught her how to fold the chair without hurting her back and how to put the chair into her car and take it out without involving or damaging her back. She continued as an active docent after the initial healing period and the first part of her physical therapy, and the Art Center retained the services of an experienced teacher.

When I had to have foot surgeries that left me in a cast and a wheelchair, at first I just gave up touring. Then, when the healing process began taking longer than I expected and involved additional surgery, I became impatient. I decided to try using my wheelchair to tour in the galleries. (My husband got very proficient at inserting the wheelchair, and me, into his van.)

Since most of the tours at the Palo Alto Art Center are connected with the children’s art education program, I was moving with groups of ten or twelve children throughout the gallery. I started by letting the children know that a doctor had done some work on my foot and that I couldn’t step on it. I then asked them to follow my chair since I couldn’t move quite as fast as they could. Usually, they want to push so that we could go really fast, but they were very good about accepting my wish to move at my speed.

Each time we stopped to look at, and talk about, an artwork, I asked them to sit down so that I could hear and see them. This had the added advantage of focusing their attention on the works more directly. They did not have the tendency to wander about and look at other neighboring artworks as they sometimes did when standing in a loose circle near the docent. They looked at the art and me; I looked at the art and at them, and we exchanged thoughts, opinions, comments, and questions.

I found that we could visit the works I had chosen to feature during my tour (some designated by the director and some that I chose myself) and still arrive for the follow-up art project in the studio at the same time as the other docents and their groups.

Moving around the studio to encourage students and answer their questions was a little more difficult. Eventually, for one project, I chose to join the adult table where adults were helping to prepare materials for the next class. This worked well and had the advantage that there was someone to encourage the adults and to answer their questions about the preparation process. Other docents took over the task of moving about the studio to speak with students.

After six months in and out of a wheelchair I graduated to a walker with a seat. I used this like the wheelchair in that I sat down and had the students sit down while we looked at and talked about each artwork. Students also followed me very readily when I asked them to line up behind me and to move at my pace so that I wouldn’t get lost. Smaller children turned me into a locomotive and puffed along behind me or designated us as “parade” or “going for a walk as a line” so they had no trouble whatsoever accepting that I could not move as easily as they did.

Teachers and students alike were accepting of a docent who was in a wheelchair. Many teachers expressed their enthusiasm about having children see an adult in a wheelchair lead a tour and share an enthusiasm for art with them. And, children who came from the orthopedically handicapped unit of the hospital were delighted to find a companion at the Art Center.

Some of the children had made trips to the Center and toured with me before I had the surgery. They wanted to be sure that I would be okay eventually, but otherwise they thought both my wheelchair and my walker were “cool.”

Eventually, I even led several adult groups through the exhibits. They were not as apt to ask “what happened to you?” as the children were, but they were equally happy to have an explanation. They also were very curious about my bright red and black walker. They all preferred to stand around me as I sat and talked about the exhibits and about specific examples of artwork. This worked very well since they would often connect the piece we were near with another one elsewhere in the gallery. When they asked about the second one, I could discuss the two pieces together, thus expanding my tour without my having to take the time to move from one place to another. They were free to listen and then step over to the second art piece to examine it more closely.

On balance, I believe the wheelchair tours were as effective as any other tour. Depending on the art activity set up in the studio, I could sometimes assist individual students as they worked on their hands-on projects. When this was not possible, I found that there were always opportunities to respond to questions. I felt that my contribution as a docent was not impaired while being in a wheelchair.

Having a director who was willing to be flexible and who permitted me to experiment allowed the Art Center to have an additional docent for touring. And, I was able to stay informed about the exhibitions and to continue experiencing the joy of introducing groups to works of art. It made my convalescence feel less constraining and gave me continuity with our docent program.

Now that I am back on two feet and, while somewhat limited, ready to move back to a more conventional tour, I continue to reflect upon my experiences while infirmed. I am also far more aware of how much one can do even when presented with some physical limitations. Using all effective volunteers, regardless of their mobility constraints, made us all — the docent, the visitors, and the institution — better for the experience.

V. Gwen Weisner joined the Palo Alto Art Center, in Palo Alto, CA, in 1989, after retiring from the Palo Alto Unified School District. After twenty years in education, Ms. Weisner wanted to do something different and decided to learn about art, though she had no formal artistic training. Today, she continues to learn about the art and artists in the Art Center’s changing exhibitions, while giving tours to both children and adults.

Weisner, V. Gwen. “The Docent and the Wheelchair,” The Docent Educator 12.2 (Winter 2002-03): 18-19.


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