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“Professionalizing” Docents

A recent declaration by the American Association of Museums stating that “there is an educational purpose in every museum activity” {Excellence and Equity. 192. Washington. DC: American Association of Museums) could be considered true … at least conceptually. However, this view is not consistent with reality. In practice, the purpose of museum activities can more accurately be divided into three distinct and different categories: administrative, curatorial, and educational.

Administration is the governing arm of an institution. Administrative duties are “operations-based.” and involve overseeing the mission and direction of the institution, hiring and terminating employees, sustaining the fiscal health of the institution, fund-raising, protective services, and maintaining the integrity of physical structures.

Those in the curatorial division are guardians of the collections. Curatorial duties are “object-based,” and involve preserving, conserving, insuring, researching, cataloguing, and determining the physical context and presentation of the collection.

Education is the museum’s public service division. Education is “people-based” and is concerned with engaging visitors, communicating, instructing, interpreting, enfranchising, ensuring access, audience-building, and public relations.

Though overlap among personnel and responsibilities exists within these divisions, different motivations drive their concerns and fuel their actions. Administrators focus on the institution and its functions, curators on the collection and its presentation, and educators on the public and special constituencies.

Notice that the impelling force initiating most administrative and curatorial efforts is internal (i.e. – the physical institution, the collection, and exhibitions), while the force initiating most educational endeavors is external (i.e. – visitors, students, and potential audiences). This difference in perspective — education’s concern for. and response to. external exigencies as opposed to internal ones — is a recurrent source of confusion for many within the museum profession, and can blur or even convolute education’s true purpose.

What is the true purpose of education? What should educators work to accomplish? While reflecting upon the controversy surrounding such questions, the eminent educator and philosopher Matthew Lipman writes, “Education should aim to produce reasonable, judicious, and creative individuals. There are many who object to such a goal, on the ground that it emphasizes method at the expense of content — it exaggerates the importance of how one learns and underestimates the importance of what one needs to know. I think that those who raise this objection are in error. It is true that we can be knowledgeable without being reasonable, judicious, or creative; we can be staid and pedantic ignoramuses.” {Education for Thinking. 1992. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 92.)

As Professor Lipman states, the purpose of education is to teach people to think reasonably, judiciously, and creatively within a context or discipline. In museums, therefore, educational programming’ s priority ought not to be the transfer of information about the collection or to predetermine the manner in which a visitor perceives the collection, but to respond to the visitor’s need to become a more effective and independent thinker in such environments.

Unlike their colleagues within the museum profession, educators view their institution’s collection as a “vehicle” — a point-of-departure — rather than as the measure of what should be learned — a point-of-destination. In other words, an educator does not teach using a Jackson Pollock painting simply to transfer information about that one, particular work of art. (That information can be succinctly included in a label.) An educator teaches how to look at, analyze, and respond to Art, using a Jackson Pollock painting as a significant and worthy example.

Education’s aim, therefore, should be to teach visitors how to observe, compare, classify, infer, deduce, induce, hypothesize, explain, interpret, imagine, and decide — using inquiry and critical thinking skills that promote reasonable, judicious, and creative investigation and reflection. For it is the ability to perform these thinking activities that enables a person to grow and become independent in learning situations.

While it is not wrong to teach content within museums, this approach falls short of education’s pre-eminent mission and purpose. It can lead one to think of content as definite and finite, which it is not. And, since content is most often conveyed using an authoritative style of instruction, visitors are passive and learn nothing about acquiring information or developing meaning on their own. While “telling” may appease the museum visitors’ desire to know without having to work, it does not address their need to learn through the mastery of such skills as investigating, extrapolating, and constructing meaning.

Teaching students/visitors how to learn is more essential than telling them what should be remembered. “Telling” does litde to promote ownership of information. What is heard is much more easily forgotten than what is experienced through involved thinking. And, after all, facts are not immutable, nor is content. Both can and do change. The reputation of artists, the classification of species, historical interpretations, causal relationships, and so forth are revised and re-defined over time. (Consider, for instance, the many geo-political changes that occurred during the past few years. Is it really more important to remember the content of a specific map than to have learned how to read and analyze the information found on maps?)

Once one decides that the true purpose of education is to respond to the externally-driven goal of enhancing a visitor’s thinking skills, rather than to mirror the internally-driven goal of accumulating, chronicling, and transferring specifics, everything changes. No where are those changes more significant or affecting than in structuring decent programs. The whole purpose of docent interaction with the public changes from dispensing information to inquiry teaching and facilitated learning. Therefore, the emphasis of docent training shifts from delivering information to instruction and communication, as docents change their focus from product to process.

When docents are expected to conduct themselves as teachers, rather than as hostesses or “talking labels,” their duties become more demanding, more affecting, and require greater independence of action. Staff members having such a high level of visibility, responsibility, and authority would be considered, and expected to perform, as professionals. It is, therefore, appropriate that docents should be so recognized and challenged.

Changing the docents’ status to “volunteer professional” creates several difficult transitions. Professionals are held to a high level of performance standards, are held accountable for their actions, and are provided with compensation for their efforts. As professionals, docents would be expected to fulfill binding commitments, participate in all professional development deemed necessary, be accountable for their performance, and be rigorously evaluated. In return, as professionals, docents should be entitled to some form of tangible compensation for their efforts, and afforded the same professional courtesies, growth opportunities, and level of enfranchisement given to paid staff.

These changes can threaten museum staffers, especially those who feel under compensated themselves. They can also threaten some volunteers who did not choose this form of community service to be measured by professional standards. Nonetheless, the responsibilities of education are too important, and the consequences of poor teaching or public relations are too great, to allow these objections to override the real need to professionalize docent corps.

It was the museum profession that chose to use volunteers to perform the essential responsibility of public education. Therefore, it is the museum profession that should be held accountable for providing these volunteers with the best and most rigorous training, support, and resources possible. This is especially crucial in light of the American Association of Museums’ proclamation of a renewed commitment to quality education, and its assertion that education is eminent among museum activities and responsibilities.

While some staff may object, and some among the docent ranks may end their voluntary service, the process of professionalizing docents will ultimately benefit all. It will establish an even more highly effective corps of educators, worthy of the respect they deserve; it will add to the fulfilling nature of voluntary service by heightening the challenges and adding to its prestige; and, it will provide museums with the caliber of educators they require and that most conscientious docents strive to be.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenshaus, Alan. “‘Professionalizing’ Docents,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 2-3.


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