A well constructed introduction does several important things for a museum tour. It establishes the tone, clarifies expectations, and affirms the docent’s role while orienting visitors to a new experience. Just as the seasoned docent can size up a group as they enter the museum, visitors form powerful first impressions based upon how the docent introduces the tour.
The actual text of the introduction will vary depending from institution to institution and audience to audience, but certain aspects need to be included:
Just as you would acknowledge a guest in your home, visitors to the museum deserve a cordial greeting that conveys your pleasure that they have come.
In addition to introducing yourself by name, mention (or ask) the name of the group leader, organization, school, or hometown of your guests and thank them for coming. Ask if any in the group have been to the museum before. Their answers can help you adjust your tour and will tell you who you might first engage in conversation.
To relieve adult newcomers’ uncertainty, explain where and how long you will be touring, the location of rest rooms and water fountains, and any other directions they may find helpful and that will make them feel more at ease in new surroundings. When touring school groups, this information should be mailed ahead of time if possible and could be printed on a note of welcome and handed to the chaperone when the group enters.
Before launching into the tour itself, remind your group of the theme or focus of the tour. This is especially important with school groups who have, hopefully, prepared by using your pre-visit materials. It not only reminds students of the topic to be covered but also cues the docent as to their familiarity with it.
One day, as a docent routinely asked during her introduction, “Have you been studying the Wichita Indians in class?” she got not only blank stares but shaking heads followed by the response, “We’ve been studying Victorian etiquette.” There had evidently been a mix-up in the teacher packets and, fortunately, the docents were able to shift gears and begin an entirely different tour!
Both first-time and returning visitors appreciate knowing what is expected of them and why. A simple request not to touch the objects, to maintain a single file line, to stay to the right on the stairs, or to keep voices quiet in the exhibit area can eliminate confusion and save someone from encountering an embarrassing situation. Remember, before-the-fact explanations are more persuasive than are censoring looks during the tour.
Everyone, especially youngsters, like to understand that rules have reason and are not punitive. When touring young children, pass around a small mirror or piece of Plexiglas. Then, point out the fingerprints it collects and explain that these would spoil the special things in the museum. Asking their help in protecting the artifacts makes even these youngest visitors our allies.
While all this may sound like a lot to accomplish before the tour even begins, consider how important the first few minutes of any new experience can be. Imagine yourself entering the museum for the first time. What could your host do to make you feel welcome and to encourage your interests? Build these elements into your introduction so that it works as well for your guests as it does for you, and you will have established a rapport that can have lasting effects long after the tour has ended.
Susan Miner is Education Director at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum in Wichita, Kansas, where she has been responsible for tour development and docent supervision for 20 years. She is a frequent contributor of texts and photographic images to The Docent Educator.
Miner, Susan. “Off to a great Start,” The Docent Educator 5.1 (Autumn 1995): 5.