Monday, December 30, 2013

Vincent and Me: What a Great Docent Does

Over the holidays, I visited the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and as always in museums, found myself lurking around galleries,  watching how people interact with each other and with the art.  It was a weekday, and there were lots of school groups.  I came into one gallery and saw Van Gogh's Irises at the end of the room.  I watched one docent with a school group.  Okay, I thought, but not great.  That group moved on, and another docent, who you see at the top of the post,  shepherded her group in, sat them down,  and began a conversation.   What I heard and saw integrated so many things that museum educators and interpreters strive for,  that I'll try to recreate it here (based on some rapidly scribbled notes on my museum map).

First, the docent had the group look closely at the painting.  What did they see?  "Flowers"  "How many different kinds of flowers?"  "What color are the flowers?"  "Oh, there's a white one over there that's different."     And with each question, she reinforced the answer and asked another question to go deeper.  The kids had nametags on, and she used every child's name when she called on them or they answered.  "You're a group with great imaginations!"

But after discussing the flowers she made a switch I didn't understand at first--telling the students (who were 8 years old or so) about the difference between a portrait and a landscape.   A portrait a picture of a person;  a landscape with trees or sky or flowers.  And, she continued, "some people think this is a portrait, a self-portrait, by the artist Vincent Van Gogh, and some people think it's a landscape.   The artist was lonely--so if it's a portrait,  where is he?"   One of the students quickly guesses that Van Gogh is the white iris, "because he stands out, because he's alone."     But maybe, says another, "You don't have to be alone.  Maybe another flower will come along and pick him."  In just a few moments, the conversation had gone from merely spotting colors to empathy,  to the idea that paintings can be about feelings, that they can be metaphors for other things, and to a bit of understanding about how an artist expresses himself.

And then she expanded the idea of portraits further.  "I want you to pretend that you are someone who wants your portrait painted,  What would you be?"   Hands went up,  and one by one,  she called students up to pose for their portrait.  "I would be a butterfly,"  starts one shyly.  By the docent's own active movements,  she encouraged deeper thinking,  "Would you have your wings spread like this?  or be resting on a flower like this? What colors would you be?"  and so on,  always asking questions that required imaginative answers and getting them,  getting the students to use both their minds and their bodies.

She noticed that only girls were volunteering. How about a boy?  After some giggling and shoving in the back, it was clear that no boys were going to volunteer.  Okay, she said, moving around to where the boys were.  "Let's imagine that we have a boy.  What shall he be?"  "A prince, said one student, and the conversation continued about a portrait of a boy.   After this, she wraps up, and says, "Time to move on, but before we leave this room, I'm going to just stop for a minute and show you my favorite painting, one with a secret."

I was sitting on a bench with a couple mothers and asked the age of the students.  Unqueried,  the mom next to me said, nodding at the docent, "She's great, isn't she?  I've watched some of the others and they're not as exciting!"   I totally agree and here's my quick list of great things she did right.
  • Ask great questions.  Start with easy ones and build to more challenging ones.
  • Accept differing interpretations (from art historians and students)
  • Understand that emotions, even difficult ones, are a part of every child's life and that art can make a strong emotional connection.
  • Use several different kinds of multiple intelligences.  There was something here for visual learners, for mathematical learners (counting the kinds of flowers),  for interpersonal and intrapersonal learners and for kinesthetic learners.
  • Be adaptable.  I don't know if boys are reluctant to participate in every school group, but in this one, she didn't force them,  but physically moved back near them and made sure they were included in the experience.
  • Be excited.  She loved art and you could tell.  She also loved kids and you could tell that too.
Thanks, unknown docent, for ending my museum-visiting year with such inspiration!


Kathie Gow said...

Linda, thanks so much for sharing this experience. I'm going to send it to all our museum hosts, and especially those interested in school programs. Getting the details (like what questions she asked and how the kids responded) makes all the difference. I'd like to go through the museum that docent myself!

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