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Making Connections and Mastering Collections

One does discover new lands without consenting — to lose sight of by the shore.” (Andre Gide) The safety of “shore” in a docent training Nelson program can often be the security of mastering factual information about a particular museum collection. But what happens when docents move away from the shore? Are they comfortable letting go of the information from time to time and exploring the collection in light of their own ideas and experiences, or those of other people’s? What if docent training programs regularly focused not only on mastering collections, but on making personal connections? What new lands might be discovered?

At many museums there are two types of docent training programs, sometimes occurring simultaneously. There is training for “brand new” volunteers, who are just learning to be tour guides, and there is ongoing docent training for “veteran” volunteers. Perhaps you are considering starting a docent training program at your institution. Or, maybe you are evaluating your current program (something that should happen regularly). What should you consider as you look to the future of training your museum’s docents? For both new and ongoing training, I would suggest asking yourself the following questions:

How do I want visitors on a tour to experience the museum? Do I teach the docents the same ways that I want docents to teach? Do I provide opportunities for docents to develop personal connections with objects in the galleries before providing extensive collection and object information? Do I provide docents with opportunities to work on teaching and facilitation skills, for the sake of becoming better educators? Could docents at my museum go into a gallery full of objects they hadn’t seen before and facilitate a quality learning experience?

How do I want visitors on a tour to experience the museum?

Do you want visitors to come in and passively receive a lecture from a docent or do you want visitors to take an active role in the tour? Fortunately, the amount of “straight lecture” being given on museum tours is dwindling. Many lectures have been replaced by interactive tours designed to engage visitors. These days, most museum educators look for ways to get tour participants talking, asking questions, sharing stories, and even doing hands-on learning in the galleries. There is an attempt to empower visitors, to assist them in taking a lead in their learning experience.

During a tour designed to engage the audience, information on the museum and its collection is not eliminated, it is just shared in a different way. Rather than providing an up-front straight lecture to passive recipients, information is woven throughout the tour as visitors move deeper into the experience. Visitors are given a chance to look, reflect, question, and share. Then, as the visitors’ eagerness to learn increases, educators begin to intersperse factual information about the collection at a moment when such facts satisfy the participants’ curiosity.

Do I teach the docents the same way that I want docents to teach?

Most visitors enter a museum with very little information on the exhibition and have to rely on prior knowledge and personal connections to get started. Docents, on the other hand, are often trained first with extensive information on a collection and only afterward are they provided with opportunities to engage with the objects or to practice teaching skills.

Every museum and its collection is unique, and for this reason information related to the museum’s objects is critical for docents to learn. Information should not be eliminated from docent training. But, it need not be the first way to encounter the collection.

Often, docent training is “frontloaded” with information and then, if there is time, docents are challenged to “go out there with all that information and be good educators.” It is almost as if we teach the docents one way, and ask them to turn that approach around when they teach visitors. Imagine how much more successful docents would be if they had good interactive strategies that emerged from their content-based training.

Do I provide opportunities for docents to develop personal connections with objects in the galleries before providing extensive collection and object information?

If one of the goals of docent training is to make the docents’ experience more like that of the visitors’, we need to give docents the opportunity to explore the collections and objects, even if only for a short time, the way a first-time visitor would — before knowing everything about the collection. We need to find ways to encourage volunteers to do more looking, thinking, and reflecting, and challenge them to develop their curiosity and ask good questions.

New docent training programs provide a great opportunity for the “experience-before-you-fact-gather” approach. As men and women step forward to begin training as new docents, it is the closest they will ever get to being in the shoes of a novice museum-goer. They are often a bit intimidated, unsure of what will take place, and maybe even insecure about their own background and abilities. Instead of viewing this as something to overcome, celebrate the opportunity. Encourage docents to recognize that this is how many of their visitors feel when touring your institution. Consider this a rare and wonderful opportunity for you and for them!

Usually, the first weeks of training are filled with background information, collection information, specifics on key objects, and lectures from curators. The last few weeks of training might be reserved for interactive teaching strategies and methods. But, what if the order of this same training were reversed?

The first sessions could focus on helping docents get comfortable in the galleries, employing activities that encourage exploring, questioning, and sharing thoughts. This could be followed by specifics on teaching. such as questioning strategies, learning styles, working with special-needs audiences, and discussion facilitation. Then, in the following weeks, as the docents become more comfortable with the collection and their role with the public, they could return to the galleries to learn the history of the collection and study content specifics.

Veteran docents can also benefit from having time with the objects before learning specific information.

Experienced docents usually attend on-going training to learn about additions to the permanent collection or to learn about or visiting exhibitions. It is important that they learn details about the new objects but there a few things you can do to get them active with the objects first.

Prepare a worksheet that would work well with students on a tour and have docents use the worksheet. Have them share their answers and experiences. Give them an opportunity to critique the worksheet.

Instead of beginning with a lecture on the background of the ten most popular objects in the collection, give docents an activity that sends them out in small groups to explore those objects. For instance, you could give them a list of questions or discussion starters.

Design an activity that sends docents to objects you think they would most likely avoid while on tour. Challenge them. Even if they still don’t use these objects while touring, they will be more comfortable with them. In a best case scenario, they may have new insights and excitement about the objects!

Break the docent corps into smaller groups and have each group try a different touring strategy. Different activities might include: a creative thinking game created for elementary students, a group sharing exercise, an independent reflective activity, or even a hands-on experience.

Give the groups a limited amount of time (e.g. – 15 minutes) and then gather together as a large group and have one person from each group give a brief report about what they did and how it worked.

Such activities can be brief, and the remainder of the training can still be dedicated to studying specific information on the collection. If time constraints seem overly pressing, consider giving information to docents using prepared handouts, or through required readings. This should allow even the most content-oriented training programs enough time for docents to experience the collection interactively.

Do I provide docents with opportunities to work on teaching and facilitation skills, for the sake of become better educators?

To improve docent teaching, dedicate fuU sessions to the subject. Explore new touring strategies. Bring in an outside presenter who specializes in learning theory and teaching applications. Emphasize that how docents teach is as important as what they teach.

Have docents share in the training experience. For instance, have docents consider this quote: “There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (Edith Wharton) Ask docents to discuss whether a good educator has to be a candle, always the one to lead the way out of darkness? Or, does a good educator focus on reflecting back to the students the light and abilities that they each have?

Could docents at my museum go into a gallery full of objects they hadn’t seen before and facilitate a quality learning experience?

The answer to this question may be the key to discerning the docents’ teaching abilities. If the docents, without any information or preparation, can still provide an engaging and interactive exploration of a gallery filled with objects new to them, then you know that their training has been successful. Docents trained as quality teachers won’t be frozen by a lack of extensive collection information. The quality of their teaching will come out of the exchange they have with visitors. By addressing the first four questions posed in this article, the answer to this final question will be “yes.”

Michael J. Nelson has been a museum educator for over ten years. She currently resides in Austin, Texas, and is working as an independent museum education advisor, specializing in docent training. To share thoughts about the article with her, you may contact her through her website at http:/

Nelson, Michael J. “Making Connections and Mastering Collections,” The Docent Educator 11.1 (Autumn 2001): 4-6.


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