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The “Why” Question: Meeting the Challenge

Things were going well on my morning student tour through the galleries of Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. Happily, there was no press from the group behind. My fifth graders were gathered around the 13th Century sandstone sculpture of Buddha, sheltered by the Serpent King, Muchihnda. The children had discovered the multi-headed snake, hovering over the serene-looking Buddha, and were caught up in my recap of the legend about him. This prompted a curious student named Eric to ask, “Why does Muchilinda have seven heads?” There it was, the all important “why” question. From Eric’s steady gaze and tapping foot I surmised that he wanted a quick and to-the-core answer. Docents must seize the minute, much less the day.

A why question implies the need for an explanation or interpretation, including what Webster refers to as the “expressed conception of a work of art.” Questions of what, where, how, and when (although their answers may also reflect interpretive categories) are more bounded and direct. The answer to “why” — e.g., why has the artist selected a particular form or style — presents challenges of decoding causes of human behavior such as concepts and motives. Interpretation lies at the core of any docent’s job when representing a museum or institution. For instance, in its stated mission, Pacific Asia Museum “preserves, presents and interprets to the public the arts and cultures of the Pacific Islands and Asia in order to promote increased understanding and appreciation of all culture.”

Interpretation, then, is a high order request, and implies a responsibility toward our visitors, our institution, and the people it represents. In search of some docent guidelines to help us in this task, I discuss three points from the field of anthropology that I find useful. The first is the emphasis on close descriptions for making interpretations; second, is an awareness of the tentative nature of our knowledge according to the model of science; and third, is the benefit of including the humanistic viewpoint in our interpretations.

I draw chiefly on the work of Clifford Geertz who referred to his field of social anthropology as “an interpretive science in search of meaning.” Geertz, an ethnographer (one who observes contemporary societies) focused on the ongoing and complex subtleties of people’s behavior and the public meanings that surface in daily life. The production of human-made objects (some of which we now consider art although that label may not have been applied at the time the object was made) would be included in his survey of behavior. For those of us caught up in art and its interpretation, we need, first, to describe the object under study.

The Power of Description

The children’s scrutiny of the Buddha with Muchilinda sculpture introduces our first point. Geertz states that his work of interpretive science grows out of the “delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstractions.” Applied to the interpretation of art, this concept leads to an emphasis on close description, which is also recognized by the art historians. We need to be firmly grounded. This means focusing on what is there, and what the artist created for us to see. Only then can we venture into broader interpretations.

As docents, we can first help our students to be keen observers and develop a vocabulary that allows them to talk about the art they see. Begin by allowing children to tell you what they see (you’U marvel at their direct clarity) and then suggest some other ways of seeing. Introduce different categories, such as texture, proportions and scale, and uses of space. The good observer is someone who wants and knows how to see more.

Given a situation where they can compare and contrast different forms, students can often make their own discoveries. For instance, in a gallery that displays regional images of the Buddha we can point out the features that distinguish certain styles. Some images of Theravadin Buddhism of Thailand (beginning the 9th to the 14th Centuries) have a simplicity and stylization of traits that makes them appear unreal. Facial features (e.g., a nose like a parrot’s beak) follow closely the historical scripture from an earlier form of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhist images from Cambodia of a similar time period, on the other hand, have realistic proportions, and the impression of breathing forms with natural, masculine-looking features. These show the influence of a region whose rulers adapted a Buddha image to reflect their god/ king ideology. By pointing out distinctive styles, we lay the groundwork for students to identify images whose features show variation from the style. We are then in a position to suggest why there is variation, perhaps the influence of migrating and competing groups. Through keen observation and description we can refine our interpretations.

Of course, we have to be aware that our descriptions themselves can be interpretations and may reflect our need to see things a certain way and thereby confirm our preconceived categories. Geertz pointed out the blurred line between description and explanation.

This brings us to the second point in our job of making interpretations. We need to pay attention to Geertz’s inclusion of the word science in the definition of his work.

A Lesson from Science

Most social scientists look upon science as a method by which to pursue knowledge. They state theories and present hypotheses with the understanding that these constructs need to be continually tested with the available data for their usefulness and adequacy. A reading of Geertz’s work on contemporary societies reveals the search for meaning as an ongoing and often illusive process. Seeking neither laws nor rules of behavior, he was interested in stating his observations in an inspectable form so that others could review his work.

Geertz’s understanding of the tentative nature of our knowledge about people is important when we address Eric’s “why” question about the Buddha Sheltered by Muchilinda. When we presume to speak the mind of a stranger, in this case a Thai or possibly a Khmer artist of the 13th century, we need to remember that we can at best make educated guesses. The art piece, after all, was the artist’s expressed interpretation (also an informed guess) about what was going on at the time. Docents in turn try to make interpretations of the artist’s projection of what needed to be said. Admittedly, we stand on uncertain ground.

Archaeologists (anthropologists who study prehistoric finds) are aware of the difficulty in trying to assign meaning to objects from ancient cultures. Louis Binford’s work on expanding the field of archaeology from observation and description to explanation brought with it the need Continued on for precise methods and rigorous next page, testing. Only by stating hypotheses in a form that allows them to be tested can the archaeologist make interpretations about material finds. Even then, the interpretations are tentative and remain subject to revision with the introduction of other sets of data.

The search backward through time for the complexity of the human mind brings with it some practical ways for docents to honor the scientific model. It is important that we present our ideas in a way that others are able to follow and to critique our line of reasoning. For some listeners we will have to keep the names of specific sources in mind. (Here, it is helpful that the institution have an updated research library or internet access to resources.) It is also important that we avoid presenting our information in a dogmatic manner. In fact, we can bring up conflicting interpretations or point out the gaps in our knowledge that may inspire a budding scientist to imagine his own contribution to the knowledge search. Ideally, the explanation wiU stimulate a dialogue that captures passive onlookers and allows them to enter previously unimagined worlds.

For Eric and his question of “why the seven heads?” we need to tailor the discussion to the age, attention span, and availability of time. It may go as follows: “Scholars aren’t sure what this artist was expressing when he sculpted the Buddha with Muchilinda figure 700 years ago. Based on what they have studied about that time and place they can offer us some suggestions. One group thinks the artist may have based his image on scripture that he had learned. The seven heads may have expressed the mighty power of Muchilinda. Or, the artist may have wanted many heads to suggest the movement of a living thing and capture the awe of those who came to view the sculpture in a temple. Keep in mind, in that time there were no movies with special effects that children see today. Another scholar thinks that as Buddhism spread in Southeast Asian countries it took different forms and the many heads may have stood for those diverse ways. Perhaps you have another idea?” Unburdened by academic debate, a young girl wondered if maybe the artist had modeled it in clay first and decided to use seven heads because they “made a nice shape.” Indeed, the simplest answer may be quite reasonable. Children begin to learn that the answer to “why” questions may involve several hues of reasoning.

On the Humanistic Viewpoint

My third suggestion for docents who make interpretations comes from anthropologists who are humanistically inclined. Geertz’s work in Southeast Asia convinced him of the need for an interpretive approach to understanding the arts, languages, and performances of people in that area. He understood that these forms expressed a broad spectrum of social life, including its economy, politics, and rituals. The arts, performances and languages were a reflection of what was important to people. This awareness, when used cautiously, can enrich our presentations of art in the galleries.

We are fortunate at Pacific Asia Museum to have a fine collection of Southeast Asian ceramics. The research on these wares is relatively recent. We find in our galleries examples of objects that are described in a growing collection of art books on the subject. Of particular interest, especially to children, are the 11th and 13th Century ceramics of the Khmer Empire.

Exhibiting a distinctive appearance from other Southeast Asian wares, the Khmer pots, glazed in rich chocolate brown or greenish-buff color have a variety of whimsical, gourd-like shapes. Some have human or animal appendages giving a primitive look sparked with wry humor. They were apparently made at kilns near outlying satellite temples as the Khmer Empire expanded. Generally shunned by the elites at the capitol of Angkor, they were used and traded by the common people of the region.

The pots have led scholars like Virginia Dusslemyer to theorize on their humanistic function in that society. Using a variety of data from archaeological sources and ethnographic analogies to similar humanistic uses of ceramics, she projects their sacred properties and their ability to ward off harmful influences. For instance, she notes earlier examples of potsherds being used as covers in burials. She also mentions extant cultures who believe that as pots become transformed by fire from clay to durable ceramic they assume symbolic power.

As docents, we are privileged to use information to help involve our visitors with the lives of ancient strangers. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these interpretations are creative acts of imagination. Supporting data has been amassed because of a strong conviction in the possibility that this was how the wares were used. For our own interpretations and when using the interpretations of others, we need to apply criteria of evaluation. Thus, we need to question the closeness of the analogy to the situation under discussion and whether the interpreter (including oneself) has the experience and scope on the subject to give comment.

When done well, we can incorporate scholars’ work on humanistic data in our own lessons. We can excite our visitors without misleading them. We can present an array of possibilities of how the wares were used without assigning specific causality. Part of the docent’s job is to transmit to students the scholars’ creative acts of imagination including the belief in their possibilities. Alternatively, we risk sharing only part of the story. As Dofflemyer states, we risk omitting “evidence of the existence of criteria that might differ dramatically from ours.”

That is, we may evaluate the ceramics solely on their technological proficiency (e.g., the temperature range of their kilns and the quality of glazing) and miss the cultural or religious implications.

We owe it our visitors to update our information as new ideas come along. Much of this new data is concerned with the humanistic explanations of how the ceramics were used in the society. It is an attempt to record the humanistic viewpoint of past lives and to suggest what might be said by a piece of art.

Targeting the Future

Although I have presented my points in the context of Southeast Asian objects of art, it is hoped that they will be useful for a range of docent situations. We need, first, to base our interpretations on what the artist has provided for us to see; second, to present information not as static facts but as a developing system of analysis; and third, to be open to new dimensions of what the material objects may have meant to the people who made and used them. These three points form guidelines as we attempt to interpret art to the public.

Perhaps our most important job is to capture the imagination of a new generation of appreciators. After all, they are the potential lifelines of our museums and educational institutions. To all our students, and certainly those curious ones who ask the “why” questions, we owe the best answers we can find.


Binford, Louis R. “Archaeology as Anthropology.” American Antiquity 28 (1962): 217-225.

Dofflemyer, Virginia. Southeast Asian Ceramics from the Collection of Margot and Hans Ries. Pacific Asia Museum. Pasadena, CA: The Castle Press, 1989.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973.

Lee, Sherman. A History of Far Eastern Art. 5th Edition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994.


Mary Elizabeth Crary is a cultural anthropologist, and serves as a docent at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California.

Crary, Mary Elizabeth. “The ‘Why’ Question: Meeting the Challenge,” The Docent Educator 7.3 (Spring 1998): 12-15.

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