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Thinking Outside the Box

We are all creatures of habit, and change does not come easily for many of us. Like their colleagues at so many institutions, docents at the Freer and Sackler Gallery are primarily responsible for giving tours of our art collections to the public. But, often, museums want volunteers to give innovative demonstrations or presentations beyond the standard one-hour tour. How do we get volunteers to think “outside the box?” How do we elicit their support and enthusiasm?

It has been said, especially in the rapidly growing innovative information technology sector, that success is built on the back of past failures. This is also true in the museum world. Several years ago, in conjunction with an exhibition of Hindu religious objects, the Freer and Sackler education department wanted its docents to offer visitors a cart presentation, rather than a tour. This would consist of showing replica objects of Hindu gods and goddesses and explaining how these and other objects were used in Hindu worship. Our docents objected strongly to this idea. The education department, not wanting to force the issue, dropped the idea of a cart demonstration and resumed scheduling exhibition tours.

What did we learn from that failure to get docents to perform “outside the box?” The lessons were threefold: 1) the idea has to be well thought out beforehand (either by staff alone or together with a few docents) before presenting it to the corps; 2) implementation has to be organized and orderly; and 3) lines of staff authority have to be clear (someone has to be in charge).

With these lessons in mind, I faced the challenge of persuading docents to participate in a new initiative called Art Night on the Mall. During the summer of 1996, the Smithsonian Institution funded evening hours at five Smithsonian museums on Thursdays until 8:00 p.m. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Freer and Sackler Gallery participated in this new program. Since the Gallery did not have much money to hire staff or fund programs, I was asked to provide docents who could work Thursday evening hours. In addition, since the regular information desk volunteers do not work evening hours, I was also asked if our docents would sit at the information desk during Art Night on the Mall evenings.

How could I get our docents to “think and perform outside the box?” How could I get them to work evening hours? How could I convince docents to drive during the Washington DC rush hour to the National Mall? How could I persuade docents to give several short 10-minute gallery talks to evening visitors rather than the standard one-hour tour? And finally, how could I get them to stand at the entrance doors and greet visitors, give directions to the various exhibits, and answer questions?

I heard the following kinds of comments: “I don’t work evenings.” “I hate driving downtown and fighting the rush hour traffic congestion.” “I give one hour tours, not 10 minute talks. It’s not worth my time.” “I refuse to be a hostess at the door.”

Year 1

To overcome objections that first summer, I implemented the following steps:

  1. EXPLAIN RATIONALE. Docents were given the rationale for the short 10-minute gallery talk format, followed by a 15-minute period for answering visitor questions. Visitors, whether locals or tourists, are hot and tired at night and generally not receptive to lengthy tours.
  2. DEFINE DUTIES. Each docent was asked to staff for a 2-hour period, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and was asked to give four 10-minute gallery talks, followed by a 15-minute period for visitors to ask questions. I would provide docents with ideas for gallery talk topics or advice on how to structure a short presentation.
  3. MAKE IT VOLUNTARY. This was strictly voluntary (very few docents volunteered that first summer). No docents would be forced to give gallery talks during Art Night on the Mall 4. GIVE THEM CHOICES. For those who volunteered, I gave them the choice of galleries they wished to work in (Sackler or Freer) and what talks they would like to give (the Arts of Japan, Whistler’s Peacock Room, etc.).
  4. PROVIDE AN ATTRACTIVE “GALLERY EXPLAINER” PIN. I asked our design department to create an attractive Gallery Explainer pin for docents to wear during Art Night on the Mall This enabled the visitors to easily recognize museum personnel and helped Gallery Explainers take pride in their participation in this new program.
  5. MANAGE EFFECTIVELY. I called the docents that volunteered as a Gallery Explainer to talk through their duties and answer their questions. In addition, docents received a detailed memorandum in their mailbox about their assignments and other Gallery public programs that evening.
  6. SHOW STAFF SUPPORT. My assistant and I alternated working every single Thursday night so that we could provide help to our Gallery Explainers, if needed. The Gallery Explainers appreciated seeing staff working alongside them. When there were no visitors, we chatted with our voluntary Gallery Explainers. It was important for the staff to see how this new program was working and to make adjustments, as needed.
  7. SHOW APPRECIATION. At the end of the summer, I sent handwritten thank-you notes to each Gallery Explainer.
  8. TALK IT UP We reported the public’s positive response to the Gallery Explainer program to the docent corps at the fall general docent meeting. Attendance for these short gallery talks was high — higher than the daytime tours. The few docents that did volunteer that summer derived a great deal of satisfaction from giving these well-attended gallery talks and follow-up conversations with visitors. Word spread to their colleagues.
  9. DON’T GIVE UP I was only able to recruit one docent, an emeritus docent, to greet visitors at the entrance doors and answer questions. I set an example by wearing a Gallery Explainer pin and greeting visitors at the doors.

Year 2

The following summer, the Smithsonian Institution continued funding for the Art Night on the Mall. I continued the steps outlined in Year 1 and added a few more.

  1. TAKE A RISK. This year, I assigned the voluntary Gallery Explainers to staff the entrance doors for an hour! They spent the second hour giving two or three ten-minute introductions to different aspects of the collections. This experiment of “staffing and presenting” was an immediate success. A total of twenty-three docents volunteered their time and expertise over a period of fourteen Art on the Mall evenings. Eleven docents volunteered more than once, with three docents volunteering four times.
  2. PROVIDE A SOFT TOUCH TO WIN LOYALTY. In Washington D.C., summers are hot and humid. When a docent asked for a cup of water in the evenings, I immediately realized that I needed to provide free bottled water (and pretzels) for my Gallery Explainers who worked in the evenings.
  3. EXPRESS FORMAL RECOGNITION. In addition to receiving personal handwritten notes, I submitted an article about the new Gallery Explainer program during summer Art Nights on the Mall. The article recognized each decent that volunteered as a Gallery Explainer. I also asked the Director to send a thank-you letter to each Gallery Explainer saying “I am extremely grateful for your fine work. Your desire to serve the public and our galleries is extraordinarily generous.”

Years 3 and 4

By its 3rd and 4th years, the Gallery Explainer program complemented the regular tours program. Docents were enthusiastic supporters of the concept of working as Gallery Explainers — greeting and answering visitor questions and giving brief 10 or 15-minute talks about the collections. All the summer slots were oversubscribed and I had to limit sign-up by docents to no more than two evenings per summer.

  1. SHARE ENTHUSIASM. I asked Gallery Explainers to share their experiences. Then, these testimonials were shared among the volunteers.

I enjoyed the format because it Allowed for a less formal, more personal interaction, geared to the interests of visitors plus my own enthusiasms. – docent Lilian Sokol.

Exhausted, but exhilarated, is how I felt after my Thursday evening Art Night on the Mali experience. At the Freer, my first short gallery talk was Japanese screens. The crowd grew and grew until I must have been surrounded by about 30people, all affable, interested, lingering on, asking additional questions after the talk … 7 thought my hour on duty at the door would be a let down. Not at all. –docent Marlyse Kennedy.

Our visitors also weighed in.

Its wonderful that you are providing short Gallery Talks on Thursday evenings! Thank you for being so friendly and enthusiastic greeting visitors at the entrance doors. We appreciate your efforts!

Expanding the Program

Once our docents were comfortable with the Gallery Explainers format, we expanded this presentation in a number of ways. During the summer months, we offered out-of-town and local visitors the option of short gallery talks in addition to regular tours. For special events (receptions, dinners, etc.). Gallery Explainers are stationed in popular galleries to give brief introductions or to answer guests’ questions. For very popular special exhibitions when we are unable to give guided tours, our docents provide a 20- minute introductory gallery talk and are available to answer questions.

A large majority of our Freer and Sackler Gallery docents are now comfortable “thinking and performing outside the box.” Some of the docents are urging me to consider presentations offsite, such as outreach programs to senior citizens. So now they are challenging me to continue thinking outside the box, too.

Roca L. Harding has been Docent Coordinator for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC since 1992. Ms. Harding presented an article in a previous issue o/’The Docent Educator (Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter 1997-98) entitled, “Knowing What’s Expected: Position Descriptions and Volunteer Agreements for Docents.”

Harding, Roca L. “Thinking Outside the Box,” The Docent Educator 9.4 (Summer 2000): 10-13.

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