In general, visitors go to museums to see what might be new and interesting. In other words, visitors are curious. Curiosity, according to psychologists, is an intrinsic motivator — that is, curiosity motivates people to seek and find something. What an opportunity for docents, who thrive on sharing information! The docent’s job then, is to give the visitor a reason to be glad they came to their museum.
If docents present the entire stream of facts that they learned in training, however, it’s tantamount to giving a thirsty visitor a drink of water from a fire hose. Try thinking for a moment of your most memorable experience in a museum or on a tour. Was it memorable because it was a good experience or a bad experience? What made it so? A memorable experience at a museum might be memorable because it was good or because it was bad. Such an experience rests, not so much on facts shared, but on how information is presented.
Decent training, therefore, should have two components. One is learning the information, which, of course, is the basis of interpretation. The other is learning the skills of presentation — those techniques for sharing facts that satisfy visitors’ curiosity, take them a step further with some surprises, and make them glad they visited your museum.
It goes without saying that the information must be adequate and accurate. In order for it to be assimilated, though, especially if the information is very unfamiliar, it needs to be clear and organized. Categorizing information into blocks of related topics, or themes, helps people understand facts more easily. This is true whether the learner is in the classroom (including decent training), on a guided tour, or reading signs in a museum.
Since visitors come to museums with a variety of ages, interests, backgrounds knowledge, and learning styles, it is important that docents be aware of a variety of ways for visitors to obtain information. This helps assure that information is available in a manner that appeals to the widest variety of visitors. Not everyone wants to read signs or tour booklets; likewise, some people do not want the confinement or congestion of a guided tour.
At the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, visitors can find information about deserts and desert plants on plant labels. They can also find information in written tour guides, on interpretive signs, on decent guided tours, at hands-on demonstration stations, and through floating “Ask Me” docents, who answer questions, show daily special blooming plants, or conduct individualized mini-presentations.
The following techniques are applicable to any of the interpretive vehicles mentioned and will help make a tour or presentation more meaningful and memorable. They should be useful for training docents regardless of the content of your institution’s collection.
Every good presentation — tour, demonstration, or other — should be more than a series of isolated facts unrelated to each other. Facts, when related to a clear theme or woven into a story, have much more impact. Docents might outline the facts they learned and be challenged to find common themes or overriding ideas that will tell stories. For instance, docents at the Desert Botanical Garden have employed various themes focused on how plants (as well as animals) have physical strategies for thriving in the extremes of the desert climate. And, the plants along the trail are used to demonstrate examples of these strategies.
Starting with Advance Organizers
Studies of visitors in museums have shown that exhibits are more meaningful and better understood if “advance organizers” precede them. In other words, by providing introductions. Setting the scene for what is to come gives visitors a context (or category) for relating to the information. Docents should be taught how to set the scene by introducing themes during their presentations or tours. They must learn how to briefly tell what main ideas their tour or demonstration will explore.
Capitalizing on Curiosity
One method to capitalize on curiosity is to use the most interesting and meaningful objects along the way as examples of the facts. For example, the saguaro cactus is a very interesting plant that most visitors to the desert are curious about. It can be used to demonstrate the important strategy of succulence (plants storing water). Visitors are fascinated by these giant cacti and “thirst” for more information about how they survive in the desert. This curiosity opens the door for docents to share other meaningful facts. Help your docents discover or decide which specimens or objects can be most useful to reinforcing their themes.
Asking visitors for their observations or thoughts helps them focus their attention on specifics. It gets them involved with the information, without the docent doing all the work, and at their own interest level. The facts then are more meaningful. Ask for observations. “What do you notice about this giant cactus?” is a very different question than asking for facts . “What type of cactus is this?” or “Which bird makes its home in the hole?” is the information visitors want to learn from you! It is not something they can divine from looking. Asking for facts as opposed to observations or comparisons makes questioning an uncomfortable guessing game. Teaching docents how to distinguish between these two forms of questioning, and how to employ those that are more “open-ended” and less knowledge-dependent is essential.
Asking for opinions, such as “what was your favorite object or favorite thing you learned today that you didn’t know before?” is a great way to discover what visitors are taking away with them. Docents should be trained to ask summarizing questions to learn what they are teaching. Asked in a friendly, non-threatening way, such questions encourage visitors to review the tour and remember more of the facts, in addition to allowing the docent to know if key points were understood.
Using the Senses
Sensory experiences are perfect opportunities for creating curiosity and then resolving it. Docents should learn how to stimulate learning beyond visual input. For example, a docent might ask, “How do you think that prickly-pear cactus fruit might taste?” and then offer the visitor a sample of candy made from the fruit. Real sensory opportunities such as smell, touch, taste, and hearing are best, but using imagination is a reasonable substitute. Imagination can be used very effectively with certain dramatic objects that can not be touched.
Employing analogies and comparisons
Relating the unfamiliar to the familiar makes facts more memorable. For example, rather than telling visitors that a cactus is 40 feet tall and 150 years old, one might say, “That cactus is taller than a three story house and is older than your great-grandpa.” This is especially useful for younger children who have little concept of time. Practice using analogies and comparisons during training. It will help docents explain the “facts” about objects, and provide visitors with a memorable vision.
Like using analogies, telling stories puts a personal face on information. People love relevant stories. They are almost always memorable and often lots of fun.
Building these techniques into docent training makes docents more effective teachers and makes sharing the facts more enjoyable for both visitors and docents. If the whole idea is too overwhelming, then start with one technique at a time until your docents are comfortable with it, and then try adding another. You will find capitalizing on curiosity very rewarding.
Nancy Cutler has been the Interpretive Coordinator at the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix, AZ, doing docent training and refining interpretive techniques for the past nine years.
Cutler, Nancy. “Planting Curiosity and Harvesting Interest: Capitalizing on Curiosity,” The Docent Educator 11.1 (Autumn 2001): 18-19.