Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Learning to Talk About Art

Welcome to another guest blogger!   Tegan Kehoe is an emerging museum professional who's also a volunteer docent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as it reopens, with a wonderful new wing, on January 19.  This is the first of three posts from Tegan going inside the docent process from learning to doing.  As professionals, we spend lots of time talking about docents and what they should/could/might be doing.  Here's her inside view.
As a museum professional, I believe that working directly with visitors should be a lifelong practice for me.  I had thought for a long time that I might want to volunteer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a small, beautiful Boston institution full of art from all time periods. Until recently, I had too many other things going on in my life, including being a tour guide at two history museums, but this fall, after starting a desk job, I realized now might be the time. It’s also a very exciting time to be at the Gardner, because they just completed a new wing, opening to the public on January 19. They recruited a large group of new volunteers, and I applied just in time. In November and December, I attended a series of trainings to get oriented to the museum’s story, the collection, and how to help visitors have a great experience.

While I’m excited to get involved at the Gardner, I’m a historian, and there’s a voice in my head asking,  “What do I know about art?”  We aren’t expected to be encyclopedias -- in fact, the most important part of our role is being a friendly, welcoming presence in the galleries -- but I want to help visitors make meaning of what they see. Thankfully, the Gardner volunteer trainings include a few very useful kernels of museum education theory.

At the trainings, I was re-introduced to John Falk’s theory that museum visitors are influenced by their own conception of themselves and their reasons for attending a museum. There are Experience Seekers, who want to see and experience something new, especially a landmark or a well-loved destination, Facilitators, who bring their children or out-of-town relatives to a museum to give them a good experience, and three other archetypes that describe a visitor’s reason for being there.  

I think it’s a very useful way to think about visitors. There is no value judgment in acknowledging that visitors want different things. A part of me feels that in an ideal world, every visitor would be hungry to learn, learn, learn, and maybe stop and gaze at a painting or artifact in wonder. In reality, it’s not my place to say this is what visitors should want, and it’s not always what I want when I’m the visitor. Museums are for the public, and we do visitors a better service by trying to help them get what they want out of the experience. Still, I believe that it’s key to take advantage of teachable moments -- just to do it in a way that’s appropriate for the individual.

Another of the trainings introduced us to Visual ThinkingStrategies, an art education tool that uses questions. To demonstrate the process, a Gardner staff member showed us an image of a painting not in the museum’s collection, and asked us, “What’s going on in this picture?” A man sat at an office desk reading some papers, while a woman stood at the filing cabinet. Several people noted that something in the room seemed not quite right. Our leader asked, “What do you see that makes you say that?” and a young woman said the walls were oddly blank, as if the office’s occupants were not really settled there. An older woman replied that she didn’t find the blank walls odd at all, given the time period of the piece. As the leader asked, “What more can we find?” we went deeper into the mood of the room. We all agreed it was nighttime. I saw that we seemed to be looking down from above, as we could see the top of the door frame and the cabinet and the top of the figures’ heads. It gave a feeling of distance from the subjects.

As we talked, I was surprised to realize I kept waiting for the “reveal” moment, when we would be told the work’s title, year, and painter. It wasn’t coming.* VTS is about affirming the viewer’s ability to have a high-quality experience with the art, and meaningful ideas about it, whether or not they know anything about it. The system is designed for classes, rather than informal interactions, and volunteers aren’t asked to practice VTS strictly, just to use it as a guide. I like this model, because I think it will help me engage with visitors. Before I know much about the collection, it will give me something to say, and later on, it will save me from the temptation to just rattle off my favorite facts about a work. Still, I wonder how I will do at keeping Visual Thinking Strategies in mind when I volunteer. Will it feel awkward? Formulaic? Or will it blend seamlessly with asking visitors how they are enjoying the Gardner?

While I think I’ll start out a little out of my comfort zone, it helps to think about the whole visitor experience, not just what knowledge I can impart. I’m really excited to do this. I feel privileged to become a part of a team that sets high standards for itself with regard to visitor experience. It is said that Gardner arranged the pieces with the intention of inspiring the viewer, and I expect to be repeatedly inspired. I hope that over time, I will continually build my skills at helping to share this inspiration with museum guests.

My first shift will be on Sunday afternoon after the debut of the new wing. I will be posting again to let you all know how it goes!
*For your gratification, if you’re feeling the same way I was, it was Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting Office at Night. I later looked it up online.
Tegan Kehoe is a Boston-based emerging museum professional and historian, whose many professional interests include free-choice learning, nonprofit management, and local history. Her own blog, Cambridge Considered, [] covers the history of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also the sometimes-leader of a nascent Stitch and Bitch (knitting and other crafts club) for history and museum professionals in the Boston area. 

Top:  Banner outside the Gardner Museum by Dave Gilbert eye2eye on Flickr
Bottom:  Office at Night,  Edward Hopper


Toranosuke V said...

Thank you for sharing about your experiences as a docent, and as a historian working with art.

What a coincidence - I was just looking at the Gardner's webpage a bit earlier this evening, and thinking about how much I miss Boston, and want to visit the Gardner again soon.

It's really an incredible museum, a sort of time capsule in a sense of a certain romantic time of new East-West interactions. Envisioning Mrs Gardner gathering with Okakura Kakuzô, and the likes of John LaFarge, Ernest Fenollosa, John Singer Sargent, and other prominent Bostonians with connections to (or interests in) Japan... Well, their stories, their experiences, their ideas, just fascinate me. Ever since I first began volunteering/interning at the MFA, I grew fascinated by the stories of these prominent personalities, and their interactions and intersections.

I look forward to hearing more about your experiences as a docent, and I look forward to seeing the new wing!

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.