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Deconstructing docents: Behind the men and women who take us behind the art

Marissa McClain/Daily
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BY CHANEL VON HABSBURG-LOTHRINGEN
Daily Photo Editor
Published March 10, 2010

Our society is one of signs and symbols. These discrete units of meaning encompass much more than just images, words, gestures and sounds. At best, they can only reveal to us the periphery of truth, as the signs and symbols shift because of varying cultural perspectives and an emphasis on subjectivity.

Money is an example of our relationship with symbols. A dime is noted to be worth 10 cents. This value is based on societal agreement, not on the value of the coin’s material.

The adapting meaning of these signs, altering our perception of a fixed reality, is ever more present in a globalizing world. Truth is an individual matter — people take on the role of deriving meaning for themselves.

Our interpretations of literary works, paintings and architecture become a more intimate interaction. As symbols are perceived differently, we draw new meanings and values from them.

This trend is particularly prevalent in the realm of museums. The interactive and kinetic experiences — hands-on tools, artist discussions, late-night exhibition parties, etc. — amplify each artwork or artifact to a new reality. Now we go to the museum not just to see the artwork, but to have an experience. These events and spectacles take the focus off the art and place it on the museum as entertainment.

In the museum, the art and artifacts are often made secondary, since anyone can gain access to them online. We lose sight of the material nature of art objects as they are transcribed into digital space. Intricate passages of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings can be evaluated through MOMA’s website. It’s digital zoom after digital zoom, in which passages of paint appear on luminous screens.

In this world of full access, why even go to the museum? Why are museums needed, and how are they sustainable? In order to generate museum attendance, a spectacle must be made. The museum starts to function like a Disney World of sorts, creating a fantasy environment for its patrons.

An initiator is needed for such an experience, and within the University of Michigan Museum of Art, docents start to fill this necessity.

The docent identity

At UMMA, the docents are more than just teachers and tour guides. Each docent prompts communication, deriving conversation material from his or her own personal yearning for information. The UMMA docent team is comprised of a diverse group of individuals from the Ann Arbor community. Some became docents after retiring from elementary education or chemistry professorships, while others were artists working in watercolor or textile productions.

Bert Ramsay, who just completed his docent training this fall, worked as a chemistry professor at Eastern Michigan University. His desire to get involved came from viewing the docent program as a new opportunity with more freedom to explore.

“I’ve been retired for a number of years so I was looking for a new career, so to speak," Ramsay said. "I’ve been lecturing in chemistry for many years, and there is not a lot of learning in a lecture situation. Most learning comes when you get involved — what I liked (about being a docent) is that I didn’t have to know the lecture all the time. What I try to do is get the kids involved.”

While docents are traditionally viewed as teachers within the gallery, Ramsay and his peers have become active learners alongside the patrons. The docents’ and patrons’ shared inquiries into artwork’s meaning and form solidifies the museum experience.

The discourse between the patron and the docent allows them to collectively sculpt a meaning from a piece of artwork. The docent’s dialogue with the patrons provides a more meaningful moment for both. This use of the Socratic method enables the museum guests to establish meaning for themselves, though they are guided in the process.

Pat Glidewell, a UMMA docent since 2004, expressed a desire for docents to enable museum guests to tease out their own conclusions about the artwork.

“Many of the people in the (tour) group can make their own connection to the work of art,” Glidewell said, “and that comes from drawing them in, asking them to look, getting them to be the discoverers of things and what they see.”

With the aid of a docent, each museum guest can feel empowered here and now without swimming through a sermon of formal analysis and historical doctrine.

Guiding the new guides

Active learning is central, not only for the patron and established docent, but also in the docent training curriculum. Although the docents are volunteers, the recruitment process is a regimented one, demanding a team of experienced docents along with members of UMMA’s education department. Together this team works to advertise and draw potential docents in.

The UMMA education department and the seasoned docents strive to find well suited individuals to take on the task. They interview and screen candidates before inviting a select few into the program. Once potential docents are selected, they go through a two-semester training program.

The training session is played out through a series of lectures and gallery experiences, mostly interactively based, occurring twice a week for two hours. These meetings act to ingrain basic art history and research techniques, but more important, they act to develop touring techniques. It is here where the program pulls from didactic and experiential modes of learning, making it extremely inventive.

Laura Seligman, a new docent who came on last fall, reflected on the incorporation of guest lecture speakers from the University departments.

“(Jacob Procter, associate curator of modern & contemporary art) walked us through the new galleries and talked about why he chose, what he chose and how he situated certain pieces," she said. "Like for example, he put the Donald Judd piece near the window and it referenced the building outside the window and cast shadows along the floor. The way a piece hangs matters. It’s not just the piece. That was very exciting for me.”

This aspect of training is distinctive to UMMA because it's a University-based museum.

“That is the gift of being part of the University community, where you have these phenomenal professors and graduate students exploring, who really know this material,” Seligman said.

The docents can learn from leading experts in the field who are researching and relaying information in real time. This is another moment when learning becomes active, not just for people who step into the museum, but for the docents themselves. They come out of a culture of contributory learning, so it’s natural that they relay that same attitude to each museum guest.

Seligman was drawn to being a docent for this collaborative aspect, which she found in her previous experience with museums in Rochester, NY.

“For me the museum was like this community well," she said. "It was so exciting, and always new things were happening there. Very interesting people were showing up there – it was a hot spot.”

UMMA fulfills this role in Ann Arbor through its stream of changing exhibits and artist question-and-answer sessions, like the one with emerging installation artist Heather Rowe this past fall.

In the second semester, the training shifts toward a process rooted in shadowing. These second-semester docent candidates follow experienced docents on tours with patrons. This is a time when each docent candidate can experience the touring techniques of his or her future colleagues. Personal touring styles emerge, as well as various approaches to help patrons of all ages come to understand the art.

“No script is given," Glidewell said. "Each docents tweaks the program to their own style. It is this constant process of finding the right technique that fits with the right audience. No tour, no stop, is ever the same.”

Building off of the lectures and gallery experiences, each shadowed tour is a way to slowly implement the methods and historical information gathered during the first semester. This is the moment when these soon-to-be docents have an opportunity to work off of the excitement that the guests brings with them when they enter into the museum. At the end of the shadowing process, a candidate will have completed a full six-stop tour with a veteran docent.

To fully establish their knowledge and presence in UMMA, second-semester docents write a research paper on a piece within the museum. They are asked to choose and examine an object, then write on all the associations that emerge while they sit with the piece over the course of a few meetings. After the initial impressions and emotions manifest themselves, the research paper requires the potential docents to critically analyze the artist and the historical context in which he or she worked.

The methods of learning — didactic and experiential — form a bundle of information that is not doused on each guest in the space, but rather slowly poured out. These UMMA docents have implemented this immersive, interactive method in the gallery experience, mirroring the methods in the docent training program.

With graduate students, curators and each other, the docents have constructed meaning for themselves.

Transmitting an experience

The docents' personal construction of meaning is passed on to patrons young and old, who all join in this new method of art appreciation.

But even with this pressure to make the museum more than just a collection of objects, Glidewell recognizes that the museum experience mostly relies on taking time to be present in the gallery space.

“We understand that our audiences are coming in having so much access to technology," she said. "Everybody kind of wants to see bells and whistles. We try not to give in to the temptation of making the museum feel like an amusement park, because it’s a different kind of experience. ... Sometimes you really just want the kids to slow down and look closely.”

It is the act of slowing down — becoming close to the work and drawing out a personal meaning — that establishes the spectacle. While we have the means to complicate and ornament the museum experience through digital interventions in a tour, we still elicit truth through old-fashioned question-and-answer.

This combination of the Socratic method and the sensory experience allows us to forge a strong connection with the art we observe. And it's each docent’s implementation of this learning system that reconfirms the necessity for a tactile art experience.