Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Day as a Docent: What Do You Think?

Last month, guest blogger Tegan Kehoe (above) wrote about her training to become a docent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the conceptual shift from a history to an art perspective.  She's back, to share her experience of her very first docent shift, just a week after the Gardner's grand re-opening.  We'd love to hear your perspectives on working directly with visitors--comment away!

My first shift as a volunteer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was on a Saturday afternoon, just over a week after the historic museum re-opened to debut its new wing. The excited returning visitors and curious new visitors gave the museum an incredible energy. When I arrived, the line to the admissions desk was out the front door.

While all volunteers, new and old, get into the swing of things with the reopening, the museum is asking us to come a half-hour early for a pre-shift meeting. We went over where we would be stationed and other tidbits of useful information. It was a relaxed meeting that helped me learn the names of my fellow volunteers and reassured me that I knew what I was doing.

I spent my first hour of my shift on the second floor of the historic building, surrounded by paintings by the Old Masters, furniture from Renaissance Italy, sculpture from ancient Rome, and more. The Gardner is not an ordinary museum. The art is arranged the way the museum’s founder and patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner, felt the pieces were most inspiring, and very little is labeled. Visitors often need help finding the rack of laminated room guides or determining which guide corresponds with which wall. I was asked a question every few minutes. Excited and nervous, I focused on correctly and helpfully answering visitors’ questions rather than on using the techniques I was trained on. I did ask a few families, “How are you enjoying your visit today?” and that got conversation going, but for the most part, it was busy enough that it seemed both overwhelming and impractical to engaging visitors in deep, thoughtful conversation.

My second hour was in the new wing’s Living Room, a glass-walled space for informal learning, reflection, and discussion. The space is inspired by Mrs. Gardner's tradition of hospitality, and has couches, bookshelves full of books on all topics (although art certainly predominates!), a timeline of the museum's history, a touch-screen panel with more information, and even two birdcages with finches like the one Mrs. Gardner kept. There were two volunteers stationed in the living room, which I liked. I got to know my fellow volunteer, there were enough visitors to keep us both busy, and having two of us meant we had time for have longer, deeper conversations with the visitors.

I spoke with visitors who made the Living Room their first stop and wanted to know what else they should see and how to get there, and also with visitors who had already explored the historic building. My favorite conversation was with a woman who was impressed by the sheer size of the early Renaissance tapestries in the Tapestry Room. 
The last hour of my shift, I was in the new special exhibitions area, a spacious, three-story room on the second floor of the new wing.  It's a beautiful space, but contemporary art is more hit-or-miss with me than earlier art, and I felt unsure of what to do with myself while greeting visitors there.

At one point, a woman asked me, “Why is the ceiling so high?” I explained that the ceiling was actually adjustable, and for this particular installation, it was at the highest of three possible levels.
“But the art doesn't go nearly that high... there's so much white space,” she said.
“This is an exhibit of an individual artist's work, so it was the decision of the artist,” I said. 
After she left, I realized I had missed an opportunity to ask her, “Why do you think she did that?” or, “What do you think about having all that space there?”

Later, another woman asked me, “What was on the artist's mind when she made these sculptures? I read the pamphlet and I still don’t get it.”
“Well, what do they make you think of?” I asked.
“I don't know.” She paused. “What about you?”
We were standing by a drum that had a small painted tile and a handful of bobby pins on its head. I was glad, because it was the only sculpture in the room that evoked something specific for me.
“This one reminds me of doing college theater, with all of the props and supplies mingled together in the green room,” I offered. 

Then her husband, who had been looking out of the enormous windows, spoke up. “There was this bar I used to go to, you know, the kind with the dueling pianos. This guy named Eddy was ninety-one, and he had been working there for seventy years. His job was to stand between the pianos with thimbles on his fingers, holding a metal tray with coins on it, and he tapped out the beat like that. I think that's what it would sound like if you hit the drum and the bobby pins bounced.”

“Huh,” said the woman, sounding baffled, but more amused than frustrated “You have the green room, and you have Eddy, but what do I have?” 
She looked at me. Her husband moved over to one of the eight foot by ten foot paintings.
“Something to think about between now and your next visit?” I said.
“Yeah, I guess so!” 

Did I help that woman feel empowered to form her own opinions about art? I'm not sure. I do think I planted a seed to get her thinking, though, and I know that the three of us had an enjoyable, meaningful conversation.

The Gardner embraces the model of having many volunteers who make a small monthly time commitment. I wouldn't be able to fit it in if they required more each month, but I'm happy to commit to the two years they ask volunteers to stay in the program. I will be working about two shifts a month. After I have gained more experience there, I'll write again to reflect on what I have learned talking about art with the Gardner visitors.
 And, related to my last post, check out the Gardner Museum's thoughtful mission statement here. 

Images, top to bottom:
Tegan Kehoe in front of the Gardner Museum, by Matt Kamm
Living Room and Gallery by Kidsturk on Flickr
Hallway connector, by Tegan Kehoe

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm even more eager to visit the museum during my next visit to Boston. Thanks!