The fabric is clearly red and the sign says wool, but as any frequenter of yardage stores knows, seeing is not enough for believing. One must touch the material, feel it, in short, have a hands-on experience. Handling objects invites discussion and encourages questions, the answers to which visitors can puzzle out themselves. Adding tactile to visual experience also helps the docent’s commentary move from lecture to conversation and open-ended questions.
It’s a given that handling objects is not unsupervised. Depending on the size and age(s) of the group, the docent decides which objects are likely to elicit the most curiosity and apply to his/her theme. It is the visitor’s discovery process, however that makes hands-on activities valuable. That personal discovery becomes the “aha!” moment generated out of the individual’s own imagination, the kind of learning that has greater impact than merely listening.
More vital is the docent’s learning to use artifacts and specimens as tools to inspire visitors with those wonderful open-ended questions! Does this remind you of anything you’ve ever seen before? What do you think it might’ve been used for? Who do you think might’ve made it? What do you think the color and texture of this pelt might tell you about the place where this creature lives? What do you think these fossil footprints tell you about the animal that made them?
And, of course, the docent keeps track of what is handed out. Replica j or genuine, these items, more often than not, are expensive and hard to come by. Docent training is necessary in handling, storing, and controlling items so that they are maximally protected. However, it must be accepted that hands-on items will suffer some wear and tear.
But, one may protest, the museum’s collections are the real thing, and museums are responsible for preserving and protecting real, irreplaceable objects. The museum is not a theme park. Of necessity, hands-on learning requires replicas, exact representations, but in some instances may also include the authentic and genuine. At the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum nearly all of the halls have a cart with artifacts or natural objects related to the subject or theme of the hall. Some of the items in the cart are real and some are fabricated. For instance, the beautiful dioramas tell much about habitat and adaptation, but stroking a pelt, handling a skull, and feeling the configuration of the teeth dissolve the barrier to the “eyes-only” dioramas. Mimicking the motions of a gold miner with a miner’s pan graphically and amusingly conveys the labor intensive work of panning for gold. A reel of film, each frame recording infinitesimally changed movements, shows how complex a motion picture is.
Just as travel to a new place gives a special flavor to what we have previously read about that place, holding an artifact in our hands imparts a reality, an immediacy that enriches the required and important information told about it. Greg Mertz, in Smithsonian Institution Collaborative Education Outreach (undated), reminds us that, “Conventional education is learning about the world through the interpretation and manipulation of symbols. Museum education is learning about the world through contact with and analysis of objects.” The museum’s special obligation and unique ability is to provide objects and artifacts whose stories visitors can interpret through their hands-on experience, motivating them to learn still more.
Sylvia Khan, docent and part-time education staff member, Los Angles County, Natural History Museum
Khan, Sylvia. “It Works for Me…Sharing successful techniques, thoughts, and ideas.,” The Docent Educator 8.4 (Summer 1999): 5.