It’s hard to imagine, and easy to forget, but for hundreds of those who enter your museum this year, the visit they make to your museum will be their FIRST museum visit.
I vividly remember a little girl I met at the New Orleans Museum of Art many years ago. She was so small, standing in line with the other first graders before the museum’s huge bronze doors. Her parochial school had come to see The Art of the Muppets. Although she was eager to see Bert and Ernie and her other Muppet friends, she was clearly fearful of those doors. When I finally signaled that her class could enter the museum, she lifted her tiny gloved hand and quickly made the sign of the cross.
Most of your visitors will not be as awestruck as that little girl in New Orleans, but many of them would benefit from an introduction to the museum. Big or small, old or new, world-famous or relatively obscure, every museum needs a special program that makes first-time visitors feel comfortable. Such a program should welcome the visitor, provide the museum jargon needed to make the museum easier to understand, and delineate the rules of the institution before highlighting selected exhibits. The following format, observed by the Clarksville-Montgomery County Museum for first-time school visits, can easily be adapted by other museums, zoos, and botanical gardens.
“Good morning (afternoon). My name is , and these other docents and I are going to show you around today. Before doing that, though, we’re going to do a few things to help us get acquainted.
“I’d like someone to raise a hand and tell everyone the name of this place. (Listen to what will probably be variations on the correct name. After several versions are offered, restate the museum’s complete name.) What do you think the name means? (Listen attentively to all answers. After accepting a few possibilities, define the museum’s purpose.) Yes, this museum collects, cares for, and displays objects about the history of Clarksville and Montgomery County.
“Do any of you have collections? (Allow as many children as possible to share the details of their collections — rocks, dolls, baseball cards, and so forth.) Here at the museum, we put some of our collections into cases made of ‘Plexiglas.’ How do you take care of your collections? (As the children respond, pass a small square of Plexiglas around the group.) Why do you think it is important that we not touch the artifacts in the museum? (Listen to responses. Then, show the finger-print smeared Plexiglas when someone mentions keeping things clean.)
“We want you to have a good time today, but we want anyone else who comes into the museum while you’re here to have a good time, too. Can you think of some rules we should follow while you are here? (Discuss rules suggested by the children, adding any that your institution requires that are not mentioned by them. Establish the idea that quiet talking is encouraged!)
“Now, is going to divide you into smaller groups so you can hear and see better, and so we can answer your questions more easily. (One decent divides the group and assigns each group to a specific docent.) Remember to slay with your group, and we’ll all come back in here after the tour to talk about what you saw and learned.”
At this point, each docent takes the assigned group to a pre-determined starting point in the museum. Exhibits chosen for the tour may be thematic or simply “jewels” of the museum’s collections. Any connections to be made between exhibits are your responsibility to point out. Divergent questions, role-playing, and hands-on activities continue the feeling of shared experience the program introduction began. The first-time visitor is no longer “awestruck” but, as my sixth graders put it, the museum becomes “awesome.”
Jackie Littleton is the Associate Editor of this newsletter, and a sixth grade classroom teacher at Clarksville Academy. A member of Delta Kappa Gamma and Phi Delta Kappa, she has served as both staff member and volunteer docent at the New Orleans Museum of Art and as an Educator for the Clarksville-Montgomery County Historical Museum. Ms. Littleton is the President of the Children ‘s International Education Center and Vice President in charge of Programs for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in the State of Tennessee.
Littleton, Jackie. “Welcoming a Very Special Audience: Museum Neophytes,” The Docent Educator 1.4 (Summer 1992): 12.