Don’t be surprised to find yourself getting into the act the next time you visit a museum.
You may end up “becoming” Madame de Pompadour in an 18th-century painting, donning period costumes for a selfie or jotting down your personal reactions to a new exhibit. Sensory-friendly programs, geared to autistic children, are a growing trend.
When it comes to museum experiences, the key words these days are “interaction” and “involvement.”
“Museums want to be relevant and meaningful for their audiences,” says Ann Fortescue, executive director of the Springfield Museum of Art and one of nine members of the accreditation commission of the American Alliance of Museums. “What we’re seeing nationally — and in our region — is that museums are seeking more relevant ways to connect the content to audiences. To do that, we have to keep up with them.”
That may mean picking up an iPad in the Impressionist gallery to delve more deeply into Claude Monet’s life while you’re standing in front of his iconic “Water Lilies” or dialing a number on your cell phone to hear a curator speak about a pre-Columbian vessel. In consideration of the sight-impaired, audio tours now convey even minor details.
Susie Wilkening, a Seattle-based audience researcher for museums and principal of Wilkening Consulting, says interactive learning is not necessarily technology based. “Some is, but the vast majority of interactive learning in museums is still analog and object-based,” she explains. “This increasing emphasis on interaction is helping with attendance and engagement, and is a primary reason why families and particular — but young adults as well — visit museums in their leisure time.”
A new take on guided tours
Guided tours are changing, too, moving from a traditional to an experiential mode. Although many museums still offer a tour in which a trained guide imparts information to the group, others are discovering new ways to introduce their collections.
“What’s happening is that museums are utilizing a greater variety of teaching techniques based on the ever-growing body of knowledge about how we learn,” explains Fortescue. “We’ve come to understand that one teaching mode may work for some audiences but not for all. People learn with their hands and they learn by doing. That’s why technology is beginning to play a bigger role and why there are a growing number of art labs at museums. Not everybody learns by just hearing someone talk.”
You’ll find interactive tables in the middle of galleries at the Columbus Museum of Art; the labels at Cinncinnati’s Taft Museum often include thought-provoking questions for the whole family to discuss. The Akron Art Museum, with funding from the Knight Foundation, has just introduced Dot, a “chatbox” (or computer program) designed to simulate conversation with humans. Visitors connect with Dot via Facebook Messenger on their smartphone to create an interactive tour throughout the museum.
“We put a lot of focus on empowering visitors to speak from their lived experiences and engaging in dialogue with museum staff and docents,” says Andrew Palamara, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s assistant director of docent learning. “The docents attend regular training sessions that marry art-related content with discussion-based exercises and interpretive tools like tactile objects and iPads to add social and cultural context to the museum’s tours.”
What’s happening at the DAI and Air Force Museum
Both the Dayton Art Institute and the National Museum of the United States Air Force have made dramatic changes in tours recently.
“Instead of starting with a presentation about art, we begin with time for guests to look at and make individual responses to what they see,” explains Susan Martis, the DAI’s former curator of education. “These comments initiate conversations and indicate interests and prior knowledge about the artwork the person guiding the group can build on.”
To enliven the experience and prompt closer looking, she says, guides might ask other guests to pose as a figure in the artwork, or to imagine the actions used to create an abstract painting. They may play music the artist listened to. “When people learn by making personal or social connections, or with hands-on manipulatives, they are more likely to retain that knowledge,” says Martis.
Rob Bardua of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force says that with nearly 600 volunteers, they see a great opportunity to expand and enrich the guided tour program, especially in the area of educational outreach. “We revamped the public tours to increase opportunities by expanding to five free ‘era-focused’ guided tours daily, versus one comprehensive daily tour,” he says. “In doing so we have seen much greater visitor participation in the guided tour program. We have expanded our pool of touring docents through specialized training which allows us to accommodate the increased interest.”
Not always easy
Former DAI docent Fran Moore cautions that dramatic changes should be implemented in a respectful way. A week after she had been formally installed as the new chair of the Dayton Art Institute’s 45-year-old Docent Organization, she and the other 70 docents were called to a mandatory meeting with Martis and CEO Michael Roediger where they were shocked to learn their exisiting organization was being dissolved and was being absorbed into the museum’s education department. They were also informed that in the future “docents” would be called “museum guides.” Roediger said he felt “the term docent seemed distant.”
Moore was among the 50 docents who subsequently resigned. Although their reasons vary, Moore insists it wasn’t about the new approach to tours. “It has nothing to do with those changes, I don’t know anyone who was objecting to learning new skills,” she says. “The real problem was how it was handled. I was a Catholic school principal for 30 years and I know you’ve got to include people in your planning so you have ownership of the new plan. We had announced our new board, elected and installed officers and no one had said a thing about any of this.”
The change of title, she says, was especially distressful for long-time volunteers who’d given decades to the museum. “They were hurt because being a docent was their identity, and they felt the term ‘guide’ misrepresented all their extensive training and experience,” she said. Moore and 50 other former docents have since formed a new local group known as DALI, the Dayton Art Lovers Initiative. Members plan monthly art-related excursions.
Although the DAI did not respond to queries about the current number of guides, according to some who’ve remained, four new guides have been trained, bringing the total number to fewer than 20.
Interestingly, a recent memo to tour guides at the Air Force Museum informed them they would be changing titles in order to align with industry standards. “We are consolidating all museum tour guides under the title of Docent,” confirms Bardua. “Museums nationwide identify their volunteers who give educational tours as docent. This is an accepted title throughout the majority of museums, galleries and other national attractions.”
The DAI’s Martis, who was responsible for researching and implementing the new philosophy on tours, has said current guides have told her the new strategies are proving to be more dynamic, require less memorization, and promote conversation that reflects the observations and interests of the guests.
Wendy Wheeler of Yellow Springs agrees that the new format is working. After much debate the former DAI docent decided to remain with the museum. Wheeler taught school for more than 37 years and says she learned change is something you have to do if you want to keep your job.
“The guides are now part of the education department and we have a brand new chief curator, Jerry Smith,” Wheeler says. “I am impressed with him and I have lots of hope for the future.”
Wilkening believes it all boils down to product. In a museum’s case, she says, the product is the experience. “Are they providing a meaningful experience with their subject matter? Telling a compelling story? Making science relevant? Showing beauty? Making people think? Providing that family time that families are struggling to find?”
Museums that do this well, she concludes, see increased attendance, whatever their method. “Museums that are complacent, or try to apply tech as a bandaid without considering if it is the best solution are struggling with their numbers.”
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