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Where Should We Draw the Line?: Let Us Entertain You?

“Who are some of the great entertainers? What qualities do they have in common?” So began panelist Dana Conte-Hurst at the recent Virginia Docent Exchange, a biennial conference for docents serving in Virginia museums. Held at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, the tide of this year’s meeting was Wearing Many Hats —Docents: Educators, Entertainers, and Explorers. Conte-Hurst went on to encourage participants to generate similar lists for famous educators and explorers. As the lists grew and overlapped, participants began to realize how the fields of entertainment, education, and exploration could provide models of best practices for docents.

So, who are some great entertainers and what qualities and abilities do they share in common? Depending on your generation, your answers might include Frank Sinatra, Carol Burnett, Wayne Newton, Barbara Streisand, Milton Berle, Siegfried and Roy, or even Madonna. Though worlds apart in many cases, all of these individuals are charismatic and engaging. They are prepared, but they think well on their feet. And they relate well to their audiences, often through humor.

Certainly, none of these qualities are at odds with being a docent. Quite to the contrary, they are the very attributes that are highly sought after in prospective docents. But the content of what these performers do could hardly be described as anything but entertainment.

Definitions of the word “entertain” differ somewhat among dictionaries, but there is general agreement that “to entertain” is to help, especially a group of people, pass the time — usually a short time — pleasantly; to lightly or frivolously engage; and to divert, often with humor, and often through contrived methods. The most common synonym is “amuse.” Other words associated with “entertainment” are enjoyment, distraction, and relaxation. Though movies and plays are sometimes mentioned, singing, dancing, and telling jokes are activities most often associated with entertainment. Adding weight to entertainment’s emphasis on “light weight” content are television programs like Entertainment Tonight, which glosses over substance in favor of style, and publications like Entertainment Weekly. Standing in line at the grocery story recently, a headline jumped off the cover: “Lips! Hips! And Super Powers!” I am quite sure the corresponding story was not about global politics.

Given the above definitions, the ultimate goals of entertainment are at distinct odds with those of education. While educators, like museum docents, seek to engage visitors in a pleasant manner, frivolity and diversion are anathema to our aims. And while we certainly encourage visitors to enjoy themselves, often via a “contrived” or “constructed” learning environment or process, we certainly do not view our primary goal as providing diversion, distraction, or even relaxation. Stimulation and provocation, yes. Relaxation, no.

That’s Entertainment?

Still, entertainment and education are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms, hence the term “edutainment.” According to Ann Dearman, education director at the Old Coastguard Station in Virginia Beach, ” ‘Edutainment’ is not a bad word and maybe it best describes what we try to do.” She explains, “Kids are different today and we must compete with a lot. Just ask any classroom teacher.”

However, in an attempt to “compete,” museums often miss the mark. A friend recently reminded me of a scene I had described to her — though her recounting of it was more colorful and literary— in which a horde of school children in a museum “surged around setting off every educational bell and whistle in the place and pretty much created a sound and fury signifying very little …” The dividing line between the two “E’s” for educational institutions seems to be whether entertainment is the means to an end or the end itself

Are there depths to which we should not stoop? Is there a point at which we have sold out to pure entertainment? Dearman answers those questions with this analogy: If one brings in a juggler to juggle balls for a class, that is entertainment. However, if one brings a juggler in to juggle balls that are named after shipwrecks and the juggler recites the names as he juggles — and has the students join in — that is education or, perhaps, edutainment. Regardless, the students have been engaged and they have also learned. For Dearman, any program or method that effectively and successfully addresses one’s educational goals and objectives is legitimate.

Mission: Possible

Anna Holloway, education director at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, seconds. She maintains that, “Education is that which fulfills the museum’s (educational) mission.” At the Mariner’s Museum, their mission is to “illuminate mankind’s experience with the sea and the events that shaped the course and progress of civilization.”

As Holloway explains, “Every program, exhibit, publication, label, panel, etc. that we do in the education department is done with that mission in mind. If it does not fit in — then it does not belong in the education department.” (Like many museums, both the Mariner’s Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA, have marketing, development, and/or special events departments. These department mount programs unrelated to the mission of the institution and serve, instead, a fund-raising or audience development function, e.g. – Easter Egg hunts, wine tastings, and the like.)

Complementary and Interpretive

About 15 years ago, when I was newly hired in my first position as a museum educator, the director of the museum distinguished between two different kinds of programming, a distinction that I still find useful today. They are interpretive and complementary. Both, he felt, were the appropriate purviews of museums. Interpretive programming is more strictly “educational” and is that which is intended to most directly increase the public’s understanding of the objects exhibited, e.g. – tours, gallery talks, and lectures. Complementary programming generally has a higher “entertainment” value and seeks most often to contextualize the exhibited objects, e.g. – concerts of music from the same era as exhibited objects and theatrical performances thematically related to the exhibition.

A current grant-based touring program at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia (CAC) is based on an increasingly popular educational model that integrates both interpretive and complementary programming. In this case, fourth grade students come with their classes on two-part field trips designed in conjunction with two contemporary landscape exhibitions. Part One of the experience is an interactive docent-led tour of the exhibitions. Part Two is a slide-illustrated folk music concert in which the two musicians perform songs inspired by artwork in the exhibitions, discussing the reasons for their selections with the audience. Previous tours at CAC have followed similar formats using different exhibitions complemented by thematically-related performances of theatre, dance, or storytelling, in place of music.

Let the Show Begin?

Among the kinds of entertainment and edutainment strategies docents are most likely to employ in the galleries are the use of costumes, recorded music, creative movement, puppets, and art-making activities. I can only speak for my institution, but none of our docents are likely to burst into song, dance, or a juggling routine on a tour, not that I would necessarily discourage it. In fact, for a contemporary African exhibition a few years ago, one of our docents did dress in costume and played a Bob Marley recording (to which she had the students dance) as part of an interpretive strategy for a clay sculpture that was a tribute to Marley. I also know of another local art museum with a docent who is a dancer. She incorporates creative movement for certain age groups into gallery tours.

With any of these methods, we should ask ourselves two questions and provide honest answers. (1) Why are we using this approach? (2) Is it effectively meeting the intended goals(s)?

Missing the Point

It is not uncommon to think a program or activity meets an intended goal, when it actually does not. For instance, a fifth grade teacher recently told me that a fellow teacher created a very popular lesson for a social studies unit that did not meet the objective, but only related to the unit’s theme.

The objective stated that, “The student will describe colonial America with emphasis on life in the colonies of the 18th century from the perspective of large landowners, farmers, artisans, women, and slaves.” In response, her colleague assigned students a project that asked students to create dioramas for a shop that would have existed in villages of the 1700’s.

Reportedly, the students relished the project, as it provided them with a rich and entertaining opportunity to employ creative freedom while learning something within the discipline of social studies. There was only one problem: the students were not learning what was stated in the objective. Yes, the project helped students understand life in the colonies during the specified historical period. But, it does not, as the objective states, increase their understanding of the lives of people from different strata of the society.

A simple adjustment solved the problem without losing the diorama activity that the students (and teacher!) loved. Each student could be assigned to design either a plantation, a farm, or a workshop from the perspective of an owner, a slave, a woman, etc. Presentations from each student and a group discussion about differences in the economic and social lives of the people concluded the project and made it meet the learning objective.

Is the Medium the Message?

In museums, especially in the case of costumes and music, it is sometimes easy to make a similar mistake; confusing thematic gimmicks with educational strategies. If your intention is to use costumes or music to “bring to life” or to draw special attention to exhibited objects, those are worthy goals, though they are not necessarily educational. However, if discussion or other kinds of activities asks visitors to compare and contrast what they hear and see in order to increase their understanding, then the strategy is educational.

In the example of the Marley piece mentioned earlier, the artist had tried to echo, through the sculptural form and content he chose, the characteristics of Marley’s music. By comparing the music with the sculpture, students could better understand why the sculpture looked the way it did. If the recording had been played as the students entered the gallery, without the discussion, the music would have perhaps set a tone, but it would not have advanced the docent’s instructional goals. Dancing to the raggae music was, on the other hand, an admittedly intentional “gimmick,” designed to encourage young students to “burn off a little steam,” and was, admittedly, not an educational, but rather a behavior modification, strategy.

Move It or Lose It? Most docents are familiar with learning styles and know that there are kinesthetic learners who understand best through moving their bodies or imagining doing so. Activities involving actual dance or movement may or may not be practical or advisable within your museum context. If they are options for you, I would suggest that they are most effective with younger students, as older visitors may be too inhibited.

A few years ago, we exhibited a few extremely large, highly realistic and very poignant drawings of hands in poses taken from sign language. Interpretive gallery activities included making shadow puppets and a version of “Charades.” However, those kinds of gallery games can quickly become mere games if the docent does not continually help students see connections — and not just the superficial ones — between what they are doing and the exhibited works.

A number of years ago, one very popular so-called “interpretive” kinesthetic strategy was “tableau vivant,” in which selected student were asked to mimic the poses in paintings or sculptures. That strategy— and other similar ones — can very quickly become an empty exercise in keeping students busy. While students may enjoy it, that is hardly the point if education. rather than entertainment, is your goal. In evaluating such a strategy, we must simply ask, “What new understanding will the students gain by doing this?” If we have difficulty coming up with an answer— or if the answer is not the intended one — perhaps we need to rethink our approach. If, on the other hand, it is through movement that students will best understand the impetus driving the action painting of Jackson Pollock or Franze Kline, for instance, then, by all means, employ movement.

Give Yourself a Hand (Puppet)

The use of hand puppets, especially during pre-school tours, can be a very effective strategy. We know from the likes of Sesame Street and Barney that children can be tar more eager to learn what a puppet can teach them than what an adult wants them to learn. The main consideration when using puppets to interact with children is that the puppet not upstage the exhibited objects lest the children come away knowing everything about the puppet and very little about anything else they were intended to learn.

Make It and Take It?

Some art museums are increasingly allowing certain simple art-making activities taught by docents, if not in the galleries then in multi-purpose classrooms or studios. One thing is a given — virtually all children love to make art. The question for educators then becomes, “Have I designed the art making activity so that I reinforce the most important concepts in the tour, or am I just providing a pleasurable, tangentially-related experience to keep students busy?”

For the sake of example, consider students touring an exhibition of landscape paintings by the Hudson River School artists. Let us say that the main concept that docents want high school students to understand was the relationship between the Hudson River School and the concept of Manifest Destiny, which was a guiding principle of westward expansion in the 1800’s. Would the most effective way to teach that concept involve having students create a collage landscape with a foreground, middle ground, and background or to have them create a political cartoon with landscape elements about westward expansion? I would suggest it is the latter. On the other hand, if docents want students to understand the notion of the “sublime” in the same paintings, perhaps then the creation of a “sublime” landscape using collage materials would help reach the objective.

When the Curtain Falls

When all is said and done, how do you know if your tours and other programs are merely entertaining (or not entertaining enough)? Ask! Some kind of assessment or evaluation — formal and/or informal — is essential to discovering whether you are meeting the educational goals and objectives established by museum educators working in concert with teachers and other group leaders. The understandings that students leave with may be very different from those intended, and the only way to know is to inquire.

The process of evaluation need not require the development of a survey instrument and the attendant photocopying and postage. Instead, docents might simply ask at the conclusion of the tour what ideas or concepts students will carry with them. In the case of CAC’s landscape tours and concerts, we might ask, “Who can recall one sculpture that dealt with human control of nature? How did it appear?,” or “What song did the musicians sing about this piece and why did they sing it?”

When it comes to education versus entertainment within museum education, it appears that the ends justify the means. But, as educators, we must be clear about what the “ends” are in order to know if we achieve them through any means.

Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education for the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, in Virginia Beach, VA. She received her M.A. in art history from Vanderbilt University and an Ed.S. in Curriculum Instruction from The George Washington University. Ms. Gough-DiJulio is a regular contributor to The Docent Educator. Her last article was entitled “Technology in Art Museums, ” and appeared in the Summer 1999 issue (Volume 8, Number 4).

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Where Should We Draw the Line?: Let Us Entertain You?,” The Docent Educator 10.4 (Summer 2001): 10-14.

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