Docents may not think of themselves as storytellers, but we tell stories every time we tour. What greater dramas are there than the conflict between native and intruder, whether insect, plant, human, or other animal; between the forces and tensions in the earth; or between how things were and what lies ahead? As any teacher understands, piquing curiosity, stimulating creativity, and encouraging analytical thinking requires adding spice to the learning stew. Getting youngsters to appreciate a museum as more than a repository of miscellaneous collections is a daily — hourly! —challenge. The Coordinator of Volunteers and several experienced docents at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum brainstormed and innovated two approaches to class tours.
Docents were treated to a workshop/ performance by Jan Manning on Historical Interpretation. His technique has the docents appear in character, in authentic costume, and talking to the class as though stepping out of a set. It is a very effective way to give immediacy to a lesson and to enhance the reality of an exhibition, whether it is of a gold mine, a whaling ship, a covered wagon, or a landscape painting. It also necessitates research and careful scripting to be credible. While some docents have been understandably hesitant about this level of make-believe, a few intrepid ones have taken the risk. Their success will, no doubt, lead others to gather their courage and costume before long.
The theater of the mind, the province of storytellers, is less threatening. Learning to tell stories is like learning to play a musical instrument. Though virtuosity demands years of study and practice and talent, one can learn to play a decent tune early on.
One of the first tasks of a storytelling workshop is to ease docents out of performance shyness/jitters by demonstrating that we are already storytellers. After all, docents are accustomed to addressing groups of various sizes and remembering quantities of information on a wide variety of subjects. Another task is to explain that docents need not, indeed should not, memorize and recite Moby Dick in the Marine Biology Hall! A simple, interjection of a brief story about deception can lead into a discussion of animal or insect camouflage. Even those receiving the tour can be involved in storytelling. What could be more appealing than mummies or statues coming to life and telling us about themselves, or having predator and prey give their opinions about their mutual habitat?
Storytelling is like a game of Chinese Checkers, you can move in any direction. It is, moreover, an effective teaching device, whether used to illustrate a point or merely to trip the light fantastic. Both storytelling and historical interpretation enrich the touring experience. And besides, they’re fun!
Sylvia Khan, docent, Los Angeles County, Museum of Natural History
Museum Education Conference
On November 14. 1994, the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida will host its 4th annual museum education conference. The all-day conference is open to both docents and staff members and includes a workshop on interactive teaching techniques, as well as an information exchange. The registration fee is $45.00 and includes a box lunch. For further information, write or call:
Trish Thompson, Education Dept., Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1040 Museum Boulevard, Daytona Beach. FL 32114, phone (904) 255-0285.
Frank Stella on “Blockbusters”
When asked about special exhibitions that assist museums to get the “maximum number of people into its halls” in the September/October 1993 issue of Museum News, artist Frank Stella expressed concerns.
“The Matisse show in New York raises that kind of question … Is it right to bring all that Matisse together for a few conoisseurs who really want to see what it looks hke together? They say they are doing it for everybody else. But I don’t think it is right to bring all those things together so people can now pass through and forget about Matisse. Now Matisse is completely done. We don’t need another Matisse show for another 75 or 100 years. Is that really fair to Matisse or the people who look at Matisse?”
Tracking Down Historic Sites
If you enjoy working with historic sites or visiting them when you travel, a useful publication to help you discover new ones is A Guide to National Monuments and Historic Sites by Jill MacNeice. Prentice Hall. $14.95. The text lists natural and historic sites that have been preserved by the Federal Government. They’re listed state by state, and range from the well-known (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.) to the more remote (Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico).
Kahn, Sylvia and Trish Thompson. “It Works for Me…Sharing successful techniques and ideas.,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 13.