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“To See or Not to See – That is the Question! Blockbusters Present Special Problems for Teachers

When I was a very little girl, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus came to my town. I went with my family to the railroad station at the break of dawn to watch the circus train disgorge its menagerie of exotic animals. We stood with throngs of awestruck citizens as elephants and bespangled girls led the circus parade along our main street to the vacant lot transformed with tents full of wonder. And, then, we went home to await the big event — not the circus itself, although that was certainly an exciting activity to anticipate. No, we were waiting to see GARGANTUA! The gigantic gorilla was pictured on posters all over town — teeth bared, eyes burning with hatred for his captors.

How I remember that night! Perched on my father’s shoulders, 1 rode high above the crowds into the sideshow tents. We worked our way slowly toward the cage that protected us from the terrifying gorilla. I hung on tightly as Daddy waded through the sea of people. At last, we gazed through the bars of the mighty cage. And we saw . . . a large bundle of black hair curled quietly in a corner. Gargantua was fast asleep.

Now, almost 50 years later, I still remember my first “Blockbuster” event. The memory affects the way I approach the highly touted, once-in-a-lifetime exhibits many museums work so hard to present. My baby self learned a lot from the encounter with Gargantua — don’t believe everything you’re told. When I consider taking a class to visit a “Blockbuster,” the Gargantua experience always reappears.

Blockbusters present teachers with a major dilemma. On one hand, there’s a lot to be learned from these “significant” cultural events. The opportunity to see. “up close and personal,” King Tut’s golden mask or Napoleon’s military tent will happen only once in a lifetime. Conversely, because they do attract large numbers of people, these exhibitions often become mere “walk-throughs” where no teaching takes place and the lessons learned are incidental. More and more, the job of informing the viewer is passed to a very sophisticated, and sometimes expensive, audio tour that children are usually unable to master. In addition, such exhibitions are logistical nightmares for teachers, and they violate the First Law of Teaching — “Avoid Surprises … Unless You Know About Them Ahead of Time.”

Successful field trips require a teacher to pre-plan, preview, and prepare. Because Blockbusters and other such special exhibits are not part of a museum’s permanent collection, a teacher cannot do the preliminary work necessary for a good field trip unless the museum and the docent staff consider her needs when the exhibit is planned. If those needs are included in the overall plan for the exhibition, Blockbusters become a meaningful and important outing for school children. If not, children may learn, as I did with Gargantua, “don’t believe everything you’re told.”

Pre-planning for field trips is done months in advance. Lesson goals to be met by the field trip must be approved, lessons written, and permissions obtained. Just as museums spend months or years in preparation for a special exhibition, teachers, too, need lots of lead time. A summer gathering for teachers to alert them to upcoming events, to familiarize them with the physical facility, and to introduce them to the museum’s education staff and docents would be very helpful. In the case of proposed Blockbusters, teachers could be shown mock-ups of the exhibition space and traffic plans. (It is even possible that teachers could point out potential trouble spots in the proposal. After all, they do crowd control for a living!)

Even if a meeting of this nature is not possible, a printed calendar of events (with opening and closing dates clearly delineated) should be distributed to all teachers, or, at least to every school within the museum’s audience range. Such a calendar should, of course, include instructions for booking school visits for both permanent and special exhibits. Many large, well-funded institutions produce slick, professional calendars as a matter of course, but even small museums hosting a traveling exhibition can put together a suitable calendar with a good typewriter or computer and a copying machine!

Previewing a traveling exhibit is difficult, and, in some cases, impossible. In order to do a good job of previewing, a teacher must visit the exhibition first and then book her class tour. In reality, class tours for major events that are expected to draw large crowds must be made months in advance. Even so, if possible, a teacher should visit the exhibition before taking a class to see it. Some museums offer free preview tickets or preview evenings for teachers who have booked tours, and these are very helpful. At the very least, preview materials such as brochures or catalogues should be made available to teachers.

Preparing a class to visit the exhibit is, of course, the most important part of preparation, and it is in this area that museum docents can play the most important role. By their very nature. Blockbusters often preclude real teaching. Teaching takes too much time, and Blockbuster audiences are encouraged to “move along.” Interaction with an audience is discouraged in favor of scripted tours that provide the maximum information with minimum “fuss.” When this is the case, rather than give up teaching in favor of merely telling, docents need to move their teaching from the exhibit area. Some museums offer a pre-tour school visit by a docent armed with artifacts or reproductions, posters, and photographs, and an inquiry-based lesson that will prepare and excite the students who will soon see the “real thing.”

Teachers find most pre-visit materials extremely helpful in preparing their classes to visit any kind of museum exhibition, but such materials are essential in the case of traveling exhibitions. Background information about the context and content makes the teacher more comfortable in dealing with students’ questions. Vocabulary unique to the exhibit, sample questions, suggested pre-visit activities, and suggestions concerning expected audience behavior are just a few of the types of material useful to teachers. In addition, suggested follow-up activities are helpful in setting goals.

Children come to Blockbuster exhibitions with different expectations than do adult visitors. While adults will be satisfied to merely experience the exhibit, children are brought there to learn. They will be expected to do something with their new knowledge — make a report, build a diorama, do research, draw a picture, and so forth. When museums design their Blockbuster exhibitions and the accompanying education programs with children in mind, the school visit can be a “gargantuan” experience — one the children will remember with pleasure for many years.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “‘To See or Not to See–That is the Question!’ Blockbusters Present Special Problems for Teachers,” The Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 18-19.


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