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

Marissa McClain/Daily
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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.