Friday, July 27, 2012

Reflections of an Art Museum Docent

In this guest post, Tegan Kehoe shares her ongoing adventures as a volunteer docent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  I found her honest assessment of the joys--and the challenges--illuminating reading as I consider projects that work to provide docents with new skills and approaches.  Thanks Tegan, for taking us on your own learning journey.

I titled my first guest post here, about being a volunteer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “Learning to Talk About Art.” One of the things I have learned in several months there is that only about a third of the questions I get from visitors are about art. From my experience in other front-of-the-house museum jobs, I knew that about a third of questions would be directional or logistical:  “Where are the restrooms?” “When are the tours?” The part that I didn't predict is that because the Gardner has such a compelling founding story – it was created by one very wealthy woman with a passion for art of all kinds, and her will dictates that the arrangement of the objects never be changed – many visitors want to know more about her and about the construction of the museum. This is a blessing for a docent, because it is easier to learn and share Mrs. Gardner's story than to learn about the thousands of artworks on display.

Another discovery is that I find it hard to remember to use Visual Thinking Strategies, a technique in which a guide asks questions to encourage visitors to think about their own reaction to a piece of art. Typical VTS questioning starts with “What's going on in this picture?” but the technique in its typical form is designed for formal interactions, like a tour or a class. At the Gardner, volunteers are encouraged to use questions inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies in their conversations with visitors. However, while the training on this was quite good, I feel I could benefit from a follow-up training or discussion to help me figure out what this actually means in the galleries.

What I've learned is that asking these types of questions is counter-intuitive for me. When a visitor asks me about a piece of art, it's usually an information question. My impulse is either to answer, or, if I don't know the answer, tell them where else they could get that information. Often I'll add what I do know about the piece, even when I don't have the information they want. After I've done that, the conversation feels complete unless the visitor wants to continue it. My goal for myself is to remember to follow up my responses with a question like, “What drew you to this piece in particular?” From there, we might have the kind of conversation Visual Thinking Strategies is designed to provoke – thoughtful, and empowering the viewer to trust their own understanding of the art.

The Gardner has over a hundred volunteers, which has several implications for the volunteer experience itself. We sign up for our own shifts using Volgistics, a tool for online scheduling. It's easy to use, and as far as I know, it works pretty well for ensuring that there are between two and five of us on each shift. There's a small volunteer lounge with water, tea, lockers, and books and resources on the museum. We have a meeting fifteen minutes before each shift in the lounge. Having that space is great for settling in before the shift starts and getting updates on events at the museum. Additionally, having a space just for volunteers helps me feel like a part of the Gardner.

Another benefit of such a large volunteer program is that the Gardner welcomes volunteers who can only do two shifts of three hours each per month, and may not have a regular schedule. As a young professional with an odd work schedule, I would not be able to come every week at the same time. However, it does seem that the volunteers who can make a more regular commitment get more of the volunteer experience as it is advertised in the information sessions. They have the chance to get into a rhythm, to learn the museum's collection more quickly and perhaps more deeply. They get to know each other, and form a community of volunteers who attend lectures and concerts together, at the museum and beyond.

I, on the other hand, have yet to find time to attend one of the enrichment lectures offered to the volunteers. Volunteers get out of the program what they put into it, and this isn't necessarily in the museum's control.  Of course, most of the regulars of are retirees, and have the luxury of ample free time. For me, the main rewards of volunteering are spending time in those gorgeous, quirky galleries, and getting to share what I am learning about the museum's story and the art there with the visitors.

Photo: Mrs. Gardner on a ladder on the second or third floor. From a series of construction photos, ca. 1900.  The Gardner Museum,

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