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What’s It to You?

Scientists interpret data to determine cause and effect, and to understand the meaning of information or patterns. Historians interpret objects and events to accurately construct the past and to place them in a systematic and explained, chronological order. Artists interpret the range of human experiences, ideas, and emotions to articulate them and reveal their significance. And docents…?

Docents teach. If docents do the interpreting — explaining the meaning of their institutional collections — they miss a golden opportunity to teach visitors how to interpret — a skill that is both important and useful.

Museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens are, by definition, educational institutions. Docents are the teachers in these educational settings and visitors are the students. And, like all students, it is they (and not their teachers) who should be experiencing and practicing what they are to be learning.

When docents do the interpreting, visitors become passive. They allow docents to do the observing, analytical thinking, and constructing of meaning for them. The only thing visitors learn from this experience is a greater reliance upon those who are more knowledgeable than they are.

Since labels and text panels provide more information than most visitors could ever absorb and remember, why spend a lesson expanding upon them? Why not teach visitors a practical and readily transferable skill?! In truth, it is easier to tell visitors information than it is to teach them how to observe, describe, analyze and, ultimately, interpret on their own. When you tell, you need not be concerned with motivation, discussion, direction, or mastery. All you have to do is repeat what you have learned or been told. If people are interested and comprehend, fine; if not, too bad. Simple!

However, should you wish to teach, you are concerned with transferring skills and you are accountable for your visitors’ comprehension. You are more interested in what they learn from your encounter together than in demonstrating what you have learned. And, in spite of the challenges inherent in teaching, you find that provoking visitors to make valid discoveries, to process information, and to gain understanding on their own creates a higher level of job satisfaction.


Interpreting is the search for meaning, relevance, and understanding. Frequently, interpreting involves answering such questions as, “What is the meaning of . . . ?” or “Why?”. Guiding visitors toward finding their own answers teaches them how to extract meaning, and transmits ownership of a skill that is useful in your institution and in all others.

Teaching Interpretation

The act of interpreting is the process of unraveling meaning. Interpreting involves saying something valid not already said by the given material or situation, and being able to substantiate the validity using evidence. According to this definition, therefore, interpreting is not a “free-for-all” where anyone’s interpretation is as good as another’s. Interpretation must have “validity” and be referenced back to its source to be substantiated. Unlike hypotheses, which are conjectures based on the possible, interpretations are based on the probable, and rely upon meaningful and confirmable observations that can be justified.

Regardless of subject matter (whether art, history, or science) interpretation requires substantiation. The person interpreting should be able to reference his idea or concept, and back it up by demonstrating or highlighting the evidence that supports his claim. Requesting this type of verification is an exercise that reinforces careful observation, comprehension, and retention.

Asking for Interpretations

Requests for interpretations often begin with a question or an activity. No matter how the inquiry is made, however, visitors should be challenged to observe, to develop meaning from their observations, and to make direct reference back to the object or event so that everyone understands how they constructed their thoughts and how they arrived at their particular understandings.

For instance, you are examining modes of transportation during different periods in history. You explain that, today, an airplane can travel between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in just 1/2 hour, but when folks traveled in horse-drawn coaches, like the one from 1815 in your collection, the trip took six days.

You ask your visitors to look closely at the coach. You ask them to describe it in detail. Then you ask the group, “What can you tell about travel in the early 1800’s from what you’ve seen of this coach?” That question invites visitors to do the interpreting themselves. They must construct meaning from the historic object in front of them.

Now, all that they’ve observed — the coach’s openness to the elements, its lack of privacy or bathrooms, the absence of any form of climate control, the hard seats, the roughness of its suspension, its limited luggage space — begins to have real significance.

And, as visitors develop conclusions about making a six day journey under those conditions — a trip that today can be made in comfort during a lunch hour — they learn how to reconstruct the past from historic objects. And, if you follow that discussion with another interpretive question such as “How would our lives be different if we still traveled in the same manner as they did back then?” the impact of their interpretation continues to grow. Answers might range from the obvious to the obscure, from “we would travel a lot less” to “trade and commerce would be severely limited by distance.”

Interpretation takes place in all disciplines. In a zoo or natural history institution, you might ask visitors to construct meaning from a body of information. “Now that you have seen some of the animals that live in tropical rainforests, what would be some essential ways to protect them?”

Or, you could have visitors determine what they can learn about a particular animal from its environment or from the way it is depicted in an environmental diorama.

Interpreting works of art can have a decidedly personal construct if you do not phrase your questions carefully Simply asking visitors, “What does this piece mean to you,” can turn an academic discussion into a free-for-all of opinions. It is preferable to ask visitors what they believe the artist intended to convey in his/her work, and then have respondents justify their thoughts by showing, pointing out, or otherwise substantiating their interpretation with evidence found within the work itself.

What’s Good for the Visitor …

Learning how to search for, and verify, meaning is among the most important lessons a docent can teach visitors. In addition, it can be among the most rewarding and interesting activities for the docent who is doing the teaching.

The significance and implications of a collection expand as individual and collective layers of interpretation are revealed and discussed. Inevitably, visitors offer additional insights or new twists that “teach the teacher,” and that kind of return is both exciting and fun!

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “‘What’s It to You?,'” The Docent Educator 7.3 (Spring 1998): 2-3.


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