People visiting museums can be intimidated by the art, artifacts, and traditions of unfamiliar cultures. As a decent, 1 try to ease their discomfort by relating the cultures examined to our own, building a bridge between the unknown and the known.
African art and customs may seem exotic and inaccessible to some visitors. For example, most North Americans do not carve ancestral figures for the spirits of our deceased relatives to inhabit. But, talking things over with an ancestor figure is not all that different from visiting the grave of a relative and sitting there talking to him/her. Scarification is another African practice that can be difficult to comprehend. For some African people, however, lines on the face signify a civilized person, just as the lines of a plowed field mean the land has been civilized. The practice of scarification can be compared to accepted Western practices, such as plucking one s eyebrows, ear piercing, face lifts, and plastic surgery.
Asian cultures may seem equally as puzzling. The blackened teeth and white rice powder worn on the faces of Japanese women may appear bizarre or theatrical. But, they are easily likened to mascara, eye shadow, colored contact lenses, and lipstick. The elaborately dressed geishas were the fashion trend setters of their day. Visitors, especially children, may enjoy talking about who the fashion trend setters are in our culture.
Parallels can often be found between our culture and an unfamiliar one, thereby increasing comfort and understanding. Revealing these parallels, and our common humanity, is one way lo encourage exploration of the unfamiliar that works for me.
Chris Alexander, docent New Orleans Museum of Art New Orleans. LA
While training for my graduate degree in Art Therapy, I worked with people having chronic mental illness in day treatment at a Chicago mental health agency and used museum field-trips to encourage the group’s therapeutic art making. Nine year’s experience as a docent taking groups through museum exhibitions led me to believe that museum resources could serve as enrichment and visual stimulus for populations with special needs.
Separate to training for the Master’s degree, but related to the principal conclusions, is the experience I gained conducting museum visits with people having chronic mental illness. It provided me with insights that may benefit museum docents and others hoping to better serve and communicate with this audience.
I believe it of primary importance that therapists be invited to visit the museum and speak with museum representatives ahead of touring. The museum education department should be made aware of the needs of the group so that docents and staff will be prepared. Conversely, the person in charge of the group ought to see the exhibition in advance and detentiine whether certain parts of it are best avoided or require special preparation before viewing.
Beginning a group’s visit with a brief talk by a well-prepared museum guard, who can explain the museum’s rules for conduct, often raises the behavioral expectations of individual members and may result in selfmonitoring behaviors within the group.
It is not unusual for a member of the tour to become separated from the group. Docents should be prepared for this and feel comfortable asking the person to rejoin and stay with everyone else.
Depressed, manic, and schizophrenic individuals may experience side effects from medication, making them seem “different” or less interested. They may appear fidgety and have a limited concentration span. Others may seem withdrawn or overtalkative. Understanding the reasons for these behaviors, remaining focused on the tour’s theme, and asking stimulating questions that allow for participation help make the visit more meaningful and fun for everyone.
The docent or staff member working with this population should do so as they would any group ╤ with flexibility and an understanding that the agenda belongs to the individuals in the group and not to the museum or the touring docent. In every case, the task and goals remain the same ╤ to ensure that the experience is one of enrichment, pleasure, and learning, in a manner that allows the visitors to gain from the encounter, and which encourages them to return in the future.
Judith Podmore, docent Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. IL
Alexander, Chris & Podmore, Judith. “It Works for Me…Docents share ideas they find successful,” The Docent Educator 1.2 (Winter 1991): 12.