Monday, May 10, 2010

Museum Docenting 101

Why Do It?

Giving tours can be a fun, fulfilling experience. Many museums are in desperate need of willing volunteers, but there’s a high risk of docents losing interest or getting burnt out quickly. Here’s a basic guide to getting started in the process by someone who has put in plenty of time in the docenting world - me!

Volunteers Beware!

Browse around the internet for notices or visit a local museum of interest and just ask. Like most non-profit organizations, museums run on volunteer labor. More often than not, the amount of help they need just isn’t available. By offering to docent, you’ll be taking a heavy load off of museum employees who have to put off other duties to give tours and other volunteers who might get stuck with extra large tour groups when no one else shows up.

Before committing, make an honest evaluation about your interest in the subject. You don’t have to know a lot about it beforehand. You just have to be willing to learn. If the museum covers a variety of types of exhibits, you might get bogged down trying to keep up with all the new information. On the other hand, beware of letting on too much about being an expert in the field. Knowing a lot more than everyone else might make other docents-in-training intimidated.

Depending on the institution, there’s likely to be some sort of training session lasting a few hours or a few months. You’ll learn how tours are conducted, what material needs to be covered, and what kinds of questions to expect from your group members. Some museums provide scripts to follow to the letter, while others let docents do their own thing, but in either case, you’ll be expected to adhere to some sort of standard format. If you wish to make a drastic change in the content, be sure to check with the museum education staff first.

Expect that, before going out on your own, you’ll probably be taken on a tour by someone with more experience and then have to give one for your docent trainer. Practice by yourself a few times, walking around the galleries and mumbling to yourself. Those who have been going it for years still are in the learning process. Remember that you’re not going to get good at this overnight.

Things to Remember

1.      You should take a genuine interest in the subject or field. Your group will be able to tell if you’re not happy.
2.      You should agree or sympathize with the institution’s mission and purpose.
3.      Do the suggested readings and independent research. The museum staff doesn’t know everything about the subject. Go find the answer yourself. Be prepared for questions.
4.      Know that by signing up for a training session, you might be signing your life away for an agreed upon length of time. Make sure you have the time and stamina to commit to a certain number of tours.

Getting the Job Done

More than likely, the vast majority of your tours will be conducted for school groups, generally public schools, and for a particular grade level whose curriculum includes the subject of interest for the museum. Other groups – private schools, homeschool co-ops, families, adult tourists, college students looking for extra credit, Boy and Girl Scouts troops, etc. – are a lot less common, especially for small-time local museums. Depending on the organization, you may or may not know who you’ll be guiding until the tour actually begins. It’s always a good idea to prepare some ideas about how to tailor your content at the last minute to engage 3-year-olds or college professors. The last thing you’d want is someone to get bored.

Things to Remember

1.      Keep abreast with seasonal changes in exhibits. Timely notification by the museum staff should be expected, but it often isn’t reality. (Believe me, this one can take you by surprise!)
2.      Learn how curriculum standards and “common knowledge” are tied to the contents of museum’s exhibits. Then you’ll be able to gage beforehand what kind of prior knowledge your audience has and how best to approach different topics.
3.      Remember that little children will be more interested in what they see rather than what you’re saying. Be prepared to make on-the-spot adjustments to your script.
4.      Remember that you’re discussing real people, real events, real situations, real discoveries…really fun stuff!

One Final Comment

Sometimes docents can be obnoxious. (Remember, I’m speaking as both producer and consumer.) Sometimes they’re just not interested in putting any extra effort into the job. Other times they make negative assumptions about the group that feed into their presentations. Don’t let your behavior spoil other people’s experience. You want them to return next year.

Things to Remember

1.      Try not to assume too much or too little. Ask your group questions initially to gage what they might know about the subject. Then you’ll be able to adjust your comments accordingly.
2.      Be honest when you don’t know the answer to a question. Offer to ask another docent, or suggest a source for more information. Sometimes people are happy just to discuss about possible explanations and interpretations rather than to receive a dry textbook answer.
3.      Don’t take offense if people look bored. They might just be listening intently...or they might really be bored. Use signs of waning interest as a clue that you need to move faster, spend less time on a topic, etc. – that is, improve.