Have you been frustrated when members of an adult tour wander off as you speak? When a group of junior high students fold their arms and challenge you to entertain them? When members of your elementary group sit lethargic and yawning? What can you do to enliven your tours, keep the people in your group attentive, challenge those tough kids, and stifle those yawns? It’s simply! Don’t tell anything you can ask.
Well-thought-out questions can guide your audience to discover a lot of the information we, as docents, tend to tell. Plan open-ended questions — questions whose answers are subject to interpretation and require more than a simple “yes” or “no” response. If, by mistake, you ask a “yes” or “no” type question, recover by following up with “why,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “v/ho,” or “how.”
You’d be amazed at what tour groups can discover when guided by well-thought-out questions. Decide what you want the group to learn and gear your questions to that focus.
Playing games, writing stories or poetry, and using the five senses can draw audiences into works of art. The following are some activities that involve audiences and teach them how to enjoy and learn when visiting museums on their own or with friends.
Play a Looking Game
Position your group before a painting of your choice and tell them to begin identifying all they see. Explain the one rule that applies for this activity — they cannot name anything that has been named before. Therefore, they must listen carefully and choose a back-up for their first selection. Begin on one side of the group and call on each person. Remind them to consider colors, shapes, and lines, as well as things. Once everyone has had a turn, ask if anyone sees something still not mentioned. Repeat the process until nothing new can be found.
To further prompt your visitors, ask such questions as: What lines (real or imaginary) draw your eye to the subject? Are all the areas you called “green” the same color and intensity? Do the figures in the composition form a triangle? Where? How?
Look and Recall
Stand behind your group and have them look at a painting for two minutes. Keep time, as it can seem like ten minutes. Then, ask them to face you. Can they name what they saw without peeking? After the discussion ends have the group look again. Have the group discover how little they actually observed in two (long) minutes.
Use Your Five Senses
Choose a painting. Ask visitors to put themselves in the painting and imagine what they hear. Can they smell anything? Smell and taste often go together. Can they taste anything? If they touched something, how would it feel? Add emotional responses. How does the painting make them feel? Expand this activity into telling a story.
Tell a Story
Carry the senses activity one step further. Decide what would happen next if you could turn a switch and the painting became a movie screen. TeU the story together, or have one person give his rendition. Then, divide the group into pairs. Let each pair chose an art object and make up a story. Have the pairs share their story without revealing which art object they selected. Permit the whole group to guess which art object was the subject of the story portrayed.
Every art object has a story to tell. In one fifth grade tour, three boys chose the painting of a ship stranded in frozen water. They opened by singing something like a theme song for TV news. One boy was the news anchorman who introduced a roving reporter at the scene. The reporter conducted an interview of the captain of the ship. Through questions and answers, they told us how the captain got into this predicament. Then, the reporter signed off and all three sang the theme again. We, their audience, showered them with applause.
Ask your group to list adjectives that describe an art work (i.e., colorful, busy, dark, happy, and so on.) Then, ask the group to combine those words with “as” or “like” and a noun or phrase. Give some examples, such as “Colorful as a rainbow.” “Busy as rush hour traffic.” “Dark as night.” “Happy as a party.” Soon, without even trying, they will have written poetry.
Find a Treasure
Choose a gallery and have a treasure hunt. Pick a work of art and give three clues about it. Have your group guess which one it is by asking questions that can only be answered by responding “yes” or “no.” Or, walk through a gallery slowly without talking, just looking. At the end of looking ask the group which “treasures” drew their attention.
Did everyone see the same things? Why or why not? Go back to view the treasures mentioned in greater depth.
As you employ these interpretive tools remember, it’s not how many art objects they look at or how much information you give — it is what they see and discover on their own that counts.
Linda Osmundson served as a docent in the Phoenix Art Museum, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Denver Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and the Hearst Gallery ofSt. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. Ms. Osmundson taught workshops for museum docents and school art docent programs. Ms. Osmundson now lives with her husband in Ft. Collins, CO.
Osmundson, Linda. “Involving Your Audience,” The Docent Educator 9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 18-19.