MFA Boston School Vacation Week Family Tours
October 4, 2011: National Docent Symposium
Ritz-Carlton Hotel, St. Louis, Missouri
1:45 – 2:45pm
4d. Family Tour Program for School Vacation Week
Molly Hoffman – Volunteer Gallery Instructor, Liaison to Gallery Learning
Jen Leclerc - Manager of Family Programs
SLIDE ONE: INTRODUCTION
Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Jen Leclerc, and I am the Manager of Family Programs at the MFA, Boston. Molly Hoffman, a Gallery Instructor (which is our version of docent) from the same institution, and I are going to talk to you today about our collaboration and the tour program that we have developed and executed over the past 4 years.
Specifically we’ll explain what school vacations are like at the MFA, including past themes, activities, and tours, and we’ll talk about how we’ve developed and maintained our collaboration. We have tips for handling family audiences and we’ll share our growth and how we’ve managed the program.
So first, I want to explain what a vacation week is.
SLIDE TWO: WHAT IS A VACATION WEEK
School vacation weeks are FREE – drop-in, weeklong extravaganzas for families where they can enjoy a variety of activities. All the activities follow a theme.
Vacation weeks follow the MA public school vacation calendar, so we offer programming in February and April. We promote the activities as family-friendly; they are drop-in, not drop-off so parents or grandparents participate in the activities alongside their children.
SLIDE THREE: WHO?
About five years ago when I took over the vacation week programming, tours seemed the missing component to the template we’d been using. We had films, story hours, artist demonstrations, performances, and offered several art-making activities each week, but we didn’t tours.
And apparently I wasn’t the only one who had noticed. Unbeknownst to me (until very recently, in fact), an “eager beaver” from the Gallery Instructor training class was asking her manager if she and her classmates could give tours during the 2006 vacation weeks! Apparently, great minds DO think alike, and serendipitously this is how Molly and I ended up in front of you today.
So for me, not knowing that Gallery Instructors were already interested, the question was, who can make these tours a reality?
Who had the skill set to lead groups around the building?
Who had worked with children before?
Who had the necessary training that we were looking for?
We needed to tap into an already established source. Why train new staff to lead tours just two weeks out of the year?
It was a clear answer that had already been filled in, just with invisible ink.
SLIDE FOUR: THE GALLERY INSTRUCTIORS
The Gallery Instructors were a perfect, and obvious answer. We knew that adding tours to our vacation week programming would require such a group to execute top-quality (museum-quality, if you will) tours.
It would also require a liaison to communicate between the Gallery Learning section of the Education department (which is me and my boss), and the Gallery Instructors. I needed someone who could manage the GIs, who knew them all, who could assist in the creation of tour content and other activities, and who could cater to the needs of such a large and diverse group.
Molly is that liaison.
SLIDE FIVE: COLLABORATION and the GI LIASON
Asking the Gallery Instructors to be apart of this program was not only a benefit to us, but also to them. On the screen now, are some of the established goals of our collaboration.
The new partnership opened the lines of communication between our two, formerly disconnected, groups. And the tour program created a new opportunity for GIs, and expanded their role with museum visitors. It also offered a different audience – not the Gallery Instructor’s typical school-aged group.
And that leads me into this next slide.
SLIDE SIX: OUR AUDIENCE
When the vans and crossovers pull up in front of the building during school vacation weeks – we have no preconceived notion of whose stepping out. This slide is meant to show you the basic challenge of working with the family audience – we never really know what van is going to show to up. Or how many vans. Or how many doublewide strollers are strapped to each roof.
Family programs encourage all ages to participate. That said I would estimate that our average kid is about seven years old. But – he might be here with his eleven-year-old sister and twin three year old cousins – not to mention his entourage of doting parents and grandparents. So whatever activity or tour we’re planning – we have to consider the audience really is all over the map in terms of abilities – ages – stages – interests and so on.
I’m going to hand it over to Molly now, but before she steps up, we wanted to share a short news clip.
NECN VIDEO (run from browser)
Run-time: 2 minutes, 26 seconds
SLIDE SEVEN: CREATIVE COLLABORATION
The reporter showed two projects that were a part of the Fantastic Creatures school vacation week. And these are good examples for me to discuss with regard to our collaboration on school vacation week. What started with a few GI friends from my training class and me giving tours has evolved into a close-knit collaboration between Jen and myself that I’ll talk about in relation to the two projects you have just seen.
In early January 09, Jen and I met do one of our favorite things “the museum walkabout” to pick out objects and brainstorm on activities. We had been working together for a year. When Jen told me the Fantastic Creatures theme – two ideas immediately came to me. One was that we could do a safari themed scavenger hunt, which was the second activity featured in the news report. Jen and I headed to the ancient world galleries to decide which beasts we would feature and what activities they could inspire. I did a write-up that included information and activities. Jen then edited it and worked her graphics magic to turn it into a handout like this.
SLIDE EIGHT: LION GATE
This is the Create-A-Creature sketching safari travel log. You’ll find a copy of this in your handout package. It had different sketching activities designed to inspire them for the sculpting project at the end. This activity plays off of the grid system for teaching drawing that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. We used the glazed brick relief from the Marduk Temple of Babylon as our inspiration for the project because the bricks provided a built in grid and the lion is fantastically fierce! Then, just before vacation week, I remembered that Jen had told me about having toy binoculars that she used once for an activity so what’s better for a safari than binoculars? Jen dug them out of her storage and we loaned them out as part of the activity – it gave the students something to play with and made a nice prop for the reporter too!
The second idea that came to me was our Meissen menagerie. I’ve always been crazy about this porcelain collection.
SLIDE NINE: INSPIRATION
Can you blame me? Jen came up with the project – as you saw in the video it was a mixed media sculpture project.
SLIDE TEN: “WHERE THE WHITE THINGS ARE”
We provided white supplies of all kinds – Styrofoam cups, cotton balls, paper plates, cupcake wrappers. So Jen came up with the project - I came up with the name, “Where the White Things Are” and I also wrote up the Fit For a King information sheet that we handed out at the project station. In addition to materials Jen purchased, the GIs and museum staff donated white things for them to use! Jen ran a white trash collection campaign so people would bring in white things that could be repurposed into art!
So you can see - collaboration happens: on big things like picking out objects for tours and small things like alliterating all of our activity titles.
SLIDE 11: PAST THEMES
Let’s look at other themes that we have done together have been – we hope they’ll be of inspiration for you.
Jen draws ideas for her themes from the permanent collections, special exhibitions or even the opening of new wings at the museum.
- §Textile and Fiber Arts
- §Art of Nature
- §Journey up the Nile
- §Powerful Figures
- §Fantastic Creatures
- §Ancient Mysteries
- §Build Your Own Museum
- §Signs and Symbols
We thought we’d highlight two of our favorites and describe the related activities and tours.
SLIDE 12: FEB ’09 JOURNEY UP THE NILE
This was really our first blockbuster vacation week. If you want to draw in the crowds, head to Egypt!
Activities for the Journey Up the Nile were
- §Art of the tomb – working in our mummy room kids of all ages worked on paper, wood, and papyrus to make drawings with colored pencils. The materials drew on materials of the objects in the gallery and we hoped their designs would too.
- §Ancient jewels – (our personal favorite) using paper plates, wrapping paper tubes, wire, beads, some fabulous striped paperclips I found in the school supplies section at the supermarket, and card stock, students created broad collar necklaces, crowns, bracelets, and amulets – nothing is cuter than to see the kids (or the guide) in the museum wearing their Egyptian jewelry.
- §Egyptian animals – after completing a scavenger hunt for various animals of the Nile, students would finish up in the studio workshop to sculpt their own animal in clay
SLIDE 13: SAMPLE TOUR 1
For a related tour, we picked hieroglyphs as theme. Each guide developed their own tour within general guidelines we provided. I showed these objects.
Journey Up the Nile Sample Tour
• Scribe Prince Khunera who shows he knows how to read and write by being depicted in the scribe pose. When asked, the kids know this pose as “criss cross applesauce.” We then compared the prince with his father the King. I had a volunteer do the scribe pose next to the Pharoah so we could compare the two postures.
• Scribe Glyph from Nofer – we looked at a mystery glyph – which looks like a traffic light – later we solve the mystery.
• Coffin from monumental gallery – we stopped at this coffin because the hieroglyphs are large and beautifully detailed, they run all the way around it, providing for good sight lines for many students. I shared with them a tidbit Jen passed on to me from one of her curatorial friends – that they believed the magic of the glyph so powerful that they sometimes decapitated dangerous images (like that of a viper which represents the letter F) so that it couldn’t hurt them in the afterlife.
• Scribe case – finally the tour ended with the scribe case. It shows the tools of their profession – including the palette for their pens and inkwells, which are the basis for the mystery “traffic light” glyph stands for the word scribe.
SLIDE 14: FEB ’11 BUILD YOUR OWN MUSUEM
In February 2011, we featured the MFAs newly built American wing during school vacation week. Jen came up with the theme of Build Your Own Museum.
At Sculpt it, they drew on an Alexander Calder mobile to create their own version with wire and cardstock.
At Paint It, they used watercolor pencils and tissue paper to riff on paintings in the gallery.
At Frame It, they searched for a masterpiece provided in a miniature black and white outline form and then were free to color it in and frame it up.
Students were invited to make miniatures or full size versions of their art at each station and their visit culminated in the studio where they built their museum structure out of railroad board and cardboard. They could then hang their miniatures in their very own galleries.
We also tried a new touring schedule this year. We decided to try having tours depart every 15 minutes from 10:30 – 12:30 with all guides using the same three objects that Jen and I selected. This system has several advantages but also some challenges that we’ll discuss later.
For this tour, we really wanted to highlight the American collection and, since it fell over President’s the marketing department gave Jen the extra curve ball of highlighting presidents.
SLIDE 15: SAMPLE TOUR 2
George Washington to the rescue! This is Sully’s Passage of the Delaware. Not only did it fit the presidential bill, it also provides a nice tie in to the idea of building a museum. Because it is so huge, special thought was needed to move it throughout the building and to hang it so we could discuss that on our tours.
Paul Revere by Copley was the starting point of our tour. Not only is it a magnificent painting, he’s holding a teapot in his hands and the cases surrounding him hold his actual teapots. This gives the students a chance to observe how they might incorporate different types of objects into their museum.
Oak Hill Bedroom - Finally, we visited our millionaire’s mansion. This is called the Oak Hill Bedroom. The furniture and interior woodwork were designed by Samuel McIntire of Salem for the daughter of one of Americas first millionaires, Elias Hasket Derby. We thought this would give them inspiration for decorating and arranging their own mini galleries.
SLIDE 16: POIs
I also prepared to show 3 additional things if time permitted or situations in the galleries required. As you all know, lots of things can happen in the galleries. We might have the previous guide still using the next object or the following guide coming in on our heels, and in addition we had the regular introductory museum tours still going during SVW too.
John Hancock – another well-known local figure – and I have a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence so that they can look for his signature.
George Washington’s portrait by Gilbert Stuart – it was used for the portrait on the dollar bill
An 80 year old Paul Revere, also by Copley - this hangs conveniently outside the Oak Hill Bedroom.
I’ve touched on some of things we consider when crafting our school vacation weeks tours. Maybe now would be a good time to discuss the Nuts and Bolts of the Tours.
Jen is going to start off by talking about some of the logistical aspects.
SLIDE SEVENTEEN: NUTS & BOLTS
Vacation weeks have grown steadily over the past four years. In order to keep up with the demand and swelling audiences, while also preserving the quality of our programs, we’ve made some changes.
The schedule of our family tours is a prime example. Instead of having one 12:30 departure time with three Gallery Instructors, we now have departure times every fifteen minutes from 10:30 – noon. Over the last four years we’ve learned a lot about our audience and I want to share with you some of the reasons behind the decisions we’ve made concerning these tours.
SLIDE EIGHTEEN: Scheduling Tours and Tour Length
When we first introduced the tour program, we offered two tours each day, at 11am an 1pm. We required one guide for each tour. Potentially, we needed 10 Gallery Instructors to lead all of our tours that week – but many GIs led more than one – like Molly.
We found the later tour was poorly attended so for the next two years, we offered just one tour time each day at 12:30 and had two or three GIs leading tours at the same time to accommodate more people. As the attendance for these tours steadily increased from vacation to vacation, we found drawbacks in this system. It was difficult to have visitors who wanted a tour showing up in one place all at once. Groups swelled in size to over 30 people – which is less enjoyable for all parties involved. At one time nearly 100 people were heading into the galleries on three different tours. It was also a limited schedule – families had to take the tour at 12:30 tour or they missed out.
Also, the Gallery Instructors were given parameters but were essentially designing their own tours. You can imagine what a logistical nightmare this was; avoiding one another in the galleries, making sure you weren’t using the same objects, bringing your groups to the same elevator all at once, avoiding other activities in the galleries. It put a lot of the responsibility on the Gallery Instructors (which I will get to in a bit).
So we streamlined. This year we offered tours from 10:30 – 12:30 each day, with tours departing every 15 minutes. So 10:30, 10:45, 11 and so on. Nine tours a day, one right after another so say the 10:45 group had 20 people, they could leave and visitors who showed up after wouldn’t have long to wait at all.
Tour length has always been 30 minutes, but up until this year, the 30-minute rule was hard to enforce. With the new system, GIs have to stay on track because another GI is leaving 15 minutes behind them. Based on a lot of in-gallery experience and working with family audiences, 30 minutes is about as much time as we can really engage families. There is a lot of other stuff going on around them, like art-making and performances.
SLIDE NINETEEN: Number of Objects
How many objects can you really get a good look at and have an interactive discussion about in 30 minutes? Well, we think the golden number is three.
Before we changed the system to our current “tours every 15 minutes” scheme, GIs were developing their own tours, sometimes with 5 or more objects to cover. They followed different routes, taking different amounts of time with their groups. They selected objects relating to the theme, worked out their routes (avoiding galleries with activities), researched their objects, etc. We couldn’t provide training, other than general guidelines to follow.
There was no real uniformity in the experience that we were providing for our visitors – not that uniformity is necessary, but it does provide a stronger template to work with, and in turn, required less work for our volunteers.
Three objects works in 30 minutes; if you consider that you have an introduction and travel time between objects, it leaves you about 7 minutes in front of a piece. Since we now select the objects, we can also provide training. The objects on the screen are from our April tour, Signs and Symbols.
SLIDE 20: Object Selection
We probably use the same criteria for object selection for these tours that we all use for any tour but on school vacation weeks, some of them are even more important so I’ve highlighted those.
Proximity of the objects to each other is ESPECIALLY important during SVW. Since we only have 30 minutes, we don’t want to spend a lot of time in transit between objects. The museum is unusually crowded making it difficult to maneuver in too so the shorter your route the better. BUT we have the added complication that they can’t really be in the same gallery (unless it is quite large) because of the other groups that are either 15 minutes ahead or behind. Also, because of the potential size and make-up (think strollers) of school vacation week groups, it is best to stay on one floor. Elevators and stairs are difficult and slow with big groups.
Physical accessibility of the object is another important consideration. We may have a large group - Is there enough room for a really large group just in case? We have people of all ages and heights - Is the object easy to see? Is it a space with good acoustics so everyone can hear? If it’s in a hallway or near a door, is there a way to arrange your group to leave space for passersby? We have the added constraint of making sure that we don’t pick things in galleries that are also being used for activities. It would be too distracting for people on the tour, as well as crowded and potentially noisy.
We also pick things that clearly relate to the week’s theme. We want the tours to augment and elucidate the theme and also tie the whole experience together. When I discussed the objects for the “Build Your Own Museum” tour, I showed how we used those objects to relate to the theme.
We’ve had comments like one from a mother who came in for the Power Figures SVW who said that “she couldn’t believe how differently her young sons (about 9 and 11) talked about the art” after their tour. They were so excited to point out the figures of power and to tell her what made them figures of power. In the handouts, we have included our Figure of Power scavenger hunt and two in-gallery information sheets that I wrote. We have also included a related Art Connections card that is always available in our information center.
We also think about whether it is family friendly? Is it an object that adults and children can both relate to? Is it positive, life affirming, happy, intriguing, interesting? Does it intersect with today’s life in some memorable way? For instance, some of us noticed that the actor Jack Black bears a striking likeness to Paul Revere. When I searched for pictures of him on the web – I found this one. I printed it, laminated and finished up that object with the big reveal. I thought most children would know him from his comedies (Kung Fu Panda, Gulliver’s Travels). I was surprised that the youngest girls had the biggest reaction – then I heard that he had been on Hanna Montana! I hope the next time they come back to the museum, they want to see that Jack Black guy.
SLIDE 21: Things that make you go hmmm
SLIDE 22: Tips for Working with family Audiences
We’ve talked about the varied audience of school vacation week, well If Variety is the Spice of Life then school vacation groups are a hot tomale! You will have parents, grandparents, 3 year olds who answer every question, tweeners who don’t want to answer any, and lots of strollers and your goal is to make everyone feel welcome AND encouraged to participate AND like they have learned something BUT still gear it more towards the children. So how to accomplish that?
I’ve pulled together some specific suggestions based on things I have tried with my groups over the years.
The welcome sets the tone and also provides parents with information they need to decide if the tour is right for their family. I include the number of objects, length of time, type of objects, and theme. I also want them to know that on the tour we’ll be discovering art through group discussion and everyone is invited to participate.
In front of the object, I call “students” to the front so that they can see better. This does several things. During SVW, you may have teenagers and pre-schoolers in the same group – the older ones may not come forward anyway but certainly not if you lump them in with the little children – so the term “students” kind of covers everyone! In a nice way, this lets also adults know the tour is mostly for the children, and also children seem to loosen up and participate more when away from their parent. It is also best for sight lines and for hearing. I also arrange the group to make sure we leave pathways if the space requires it.
Something that is different from a regular tour, is that we can point out activity stations – it is really hard to remember to do that during the tour but it helps them think about what activities they want to do, orients them and gives a chance for students to show their artwork if they have all ready done the activity.
I also make sure to paraphrase any child’s comments to make sure that parents in the back can hear – children tend to speak quietly. So I ask the child’s name and then restate their comment or observation. What parent doesn’t like to hear their child quoted in an art museum?? I usually give school tours so there isn’t a lot of interaction with parents and it’s really rewarding to have them be able to appreciate their child’s contributions and also maybe learn something about discussing art with their children.
My wrap-up is mostly a thank you for their participation and to the parents for coming to the museum. Everyone has many choices for entertaining their children over the vacation week so I want to make sure they know we appreciate them choosing the MFA. I also have the children turn around and thank whomever brought them to the museum that day – watching that interaction is really is a special moment of the tour for me. The parents totally aren’t expecting it – and they usually melt!
One day of the week we offer a tour accompanied by an American sign language interpreter. Over the years, I have developed some fun strategies for incorporating this into the tour. I haven’t actually had anyone who needed the interpreter yet, so I’ll have to update you when that happens!
SLIDE 23: INCORPORATING ASL
- Introduce and welcome interpreter
- Use welcome sign to welcome group
- Learn some signs at the end of each object discussion
- Thank you
During my introduction, I introduce myself and then I welcome and introduce the interpreter. The interpreter signs the whole time I am talking. I try to remember to take pauses! I ask her to show us the sign for welcome and I then use it to welcome the families to the museum and my tour.
After discussing an object, I ask interpreter to show us signs for key elements from the artwork and invite everyone to try it. This has had happy results for me in the past – I don’t pre-plan what words I am going to choose and I don’t know the sign in advance, but the signs have luckily connected so well with whatever we have been talking that even the adults go “ahh”.
SLIDE 24: ASL Examples
This is a still life by Jan Jansz, den Uyl (the owl) who is known for hiding owls in his paintings. After discussing the prominent features of an owl, the eyes. (I might have to use clip art to give them a hint.) We then look for owls and owl eyes. Afterwards, when I asked our interpreter to show is the sign for owl, it turned out to be using your hands like binoculars in front of your eyes and then twisting them toward each other and back.
In front of Watson and the Shark by Copley we end up discussing the shark anatomy quite a bit. It’s a strange shark – it has lips – its dorsal fin is giant and way back here. One sign for shark is to hold your hand up to your forehead like a dorsal fin.
I think sign language has really enriched those tours. First of all, it gives the children something fun to do with their hands in the “no touch” zone that is museum life! But people of all ages really seem to enjoy learning the signs, I know I do, and connecting them to the art makes both more memorable.
Now we’ll discuss the growth of the program and some of its attending issues.
SLIDE TWENTY-FIVE: GROWTH VACATION-WEEK ATTENDANCE
Last year alone, from July 2010 to June 2011, family attendance was 23,000 people (about 14,000 children). This slide shows, clearly, that that growth has been steady over the past four years. It has been across the board, but nowhere are the numbers more staggering than during our Cogan Family Foundation Vacation Week Adventures.
April 2008: 350 children
April 2009: 600 children
April 2010: 900 children
April 2011: 2700 children
SLIDE TWENTY-SIX: GROWTH TOUR ATTENDANCE
It’s not hard to see with this graphic that our vacation week program has steadily grown over the past four years, in the same fashion that our overall attendance has.
This graph is graphic – it does the talking by itself really. The numbers along the bottom are of participating children during each of the vacation weeks over the past four years. These aren’t the Museum’s attendance numbers, these are the numbers that we collect at the stations – of kids who actually take part in whatever the activity is.
We’ve seen growth in all three vacation weeks, and I’ll just note that the February’s attendance has more than doubled in four years.
SLIDE TWENTY-SEVEN: HANDLING THE RISING TIDE OF DEMAND
One solution is to offer more tours, more often. This provides visitors with a flexible schedule of tours so that touring can fit into their schedule rather than the other way around. As previously described, we switched our tour schedule from one a day, to eight a day with a tour leaving every 15 minutes between 10 and 12.
But offering more tours resulted in needing more guides each day than before – we need at least 4 per day and that’s if three guides can stay and do multiple tours. The need for more guides required that we step our efforts to get guides to sign up. We developed several strategies in this area.
SLIDE TWENTY-EIGHT: INCREASING GUIDES
To increase/maintain visibility of the program within the MFA organization, Jen includes the GI-led tours in presentations she makes to the MFA staff on SVW. This results in staff members from all areas of the organization mentioning our work on the program during presentations to the GI group.
To increase its visibility within the GI organization, Molly’s position as liaison was elevated to a board position several years ago. In that capacity, she reports on SVW at the board and provides a year-end committee report that lists all volunteers and is distributed to all GIs. She also writes articles for her organization’s newsletter.
One way we tried to increase volunteer participation was to simplify tours – making it easier to participate. Because everyone is doing the same three objects, we can provide training and information on the objects and on giving SVW tours in general. The training has been very popular with our volunteers. Jen develops the training and handout, and our Curator of Education has been leading the gallery session. She walks the route and discusses how to use the object, how it relates to the theme, and provides information on the object. However, in the spirit of keeping it easy - we make the training optional – people do not HAVE to attend but most people want to. If people can’t make it, then one of us will usually run through it with them at another time. By providing information and training, volunteering for school vacation requires much less prep time for our guides than it used to. And we like making things easier for our volunteers.
It also allows us to widened our net and hook some volunteers from our newest class of trainees. In February 2011, they had just graduated from their initial training course – but many of them felt comfortable enough to give their first tours ever during school vacation week. We actually had to turn volunteers away – the slots were all filled before some people came into the museum the next week!
SLIDE 28: MANAGING THE VOLUNTEERS
The program has changed from me and a few of my fellow newbies giving tours to up 20 GIs – some of whom I don’t know and are also new to the museum and some who have been with the museum for many many years. So my style of management has had to become more official. I have provided a more comprehensive To Do checklist in your information packet and will highlight a few of my To Dos now.
Once we have a full slate of guides, I put together and publish the schedule. I attend our training and sometimes give training sessions to those who were unable to attend. The week before SVW, I send each person an email to remind them of their tour times. I also email them the night before with reminders for the their tours (like reminding them to point out gallery activities) and their tour times AGAIN. The night after they’ve given the tour, I email a thank you note and also ask for their impressions and feedback. And finally, new this year - I say it with chocolate!
SLIDE 28: THANK YOU!
Our manager said recently in a meeting that we nurture and facilitate direct encounters with art. I know that is what everyone in this room is about. SVW art activities give us a chance to make those encounters even more direct and the tours help to tie a big bow around the whole package! I hope we’ve shared the highlights of and our enthusiasm for the program with you and that we’ve given you enough information to get started!
SLIDE 29: COLLECTED QUOTES
Lessons Learned: Scheduling Tours
Seeking to improve our tour experience, both for the audience as well as our volunteers, we have experimented over the years with various tour schedules. We try something. Learn. Adapt. Repeat!
Two Times Per Day
2007 was the first year we offered tours. We offered them twice a day at 11:00 and 1:00. We had one Gallery Instructor (GI) scheduled for each time slot. Each GI was asked to mark a map with their route and leave it at the information desk so that latecomers could be directed to the group. This system was fine but we found that the 1:00 tour was sparsely attended so the following year we changed to one time per day but with multiple (2 or 3) GIs.
One Time Per Day
For the next two years, we only offered tours at 12:30 but we had two or three guides scheduled each day. One GI each day was asked to mark a map with their route and leave it at the information desk for latecomers. As the numbers for the tours started to increase, this system had some drawbacks. It was difficult to get people evenly divided up amongst the GIs. One GI acted as a dispatcher, putting people into groups as they arrived. Inevitably, people would arrive just as the last GI was leaving, creating an extra large group (20 – 30 people) for that GI. This is less enjoyable for people on the tour because it’s harder to hear and see when a group is that large. It’s also hard for the GI – imagine moving that large of a group around a museum.
Because the tours leave at the same time, everyone developed their own tours, following different routes, taking different amounts of time with their groups. There was no real uniformity of the experience that we were providing for the audience – not that uniformity among tours is necessary. Also, it required a lot of work from our volunteers to develop their tours: select objects relating to the theme, work out their routes (avoiding galleries with activities), research their objects, etc. We couldn’t really provide any training, other than general guidelines. It is a limited schedule though – families either had to take the tour at 12:30 or missed. We wanted to make it more convenient for people to fit into their schedule.
Tour Every 15 Minutes
This year in February, we tried having a tour leave every 15 minutes between 10:00 and 12:30. We selected three objects and limited the tour to 30 minutes. All guides follow the same route and keep each other to the time schedule. No-one has to mark up a map with the route because if people are late for one tour, another begins in a few minutes. With this schedule, people can drop in for a tour whenever they want in the morning – it is much more flexible for the families.
In February, we found that the 12:15 and 12:30 tours were not very well attended so we cut it back to 12:00. Try. Learn. Adapt. Repeat!
This system allows us to cut back on the amount of work required from the GIs. They do not have to select objects, worry about routes, figure out which galleries have activities in them and do their own research. We can provide in gallery training on the three objects as well as any additional information on them that we have. The training session is strictly voluntary but people really enjoy it. In fact, it seemed to be an incentive! This year, the curator of education led the training sessions.
One drawback is that it requires that we have 4 GIs per day to fill all the slots. This year we filled all the slots and then some! We’re keeping our fingers crossed for next year.
Lessons Learned: Tips on Guiding Large and Varied Groups
Your welcome sets the tone and also provides parents with information they need to decide if the tour is right for their family. I welcome them, introduce myself and tell them my function at the museum. I include the number of objects, length of time, type of objects, and theme. I also want them to know that on the tour we’ll be discovering art through group discussion and everyone is invited to participate.
In front of the object, I call “students” to the front so that they can get a better look at the object. This does several things. In a nice way, this lets adults know the tour is mostly for the children. I have noticed that the children seem to loosen up and participate more when away from their parent. It is also obviously best for sight lines and for hearing.
I also make sure to paraphrase any child’s comments to make sure that parents in the back can hear – children tend to speak quietly. So I ask the child’s name and then restate their comment or observation. The pride and yes, sometimes, surprise, on the parents’ face when their child discusses art is one of the best things about giving school vacation week tours.
Something that is different from a regular tour and hard to remember to do, is that we can point out the activity stations if we are near them. It helps them think about what activities they want to do, orients them and gives a chance for students to show their artwork if they have all ready done the activity.
My wrap-up is mostly a thank you for their participation. I also thank the parents for choosing the museum. They have many choices for entertaining their children after all. I also have the children turn around and thank the person who brought them to the museum that day. The parents are not expecting it and watching that interaction is really a special moment of the tour for me. I highly recommend it!
American Sign Language Interpretation
The MF offers one tour a week that is accompanied by an ASL interpreter. I have guided hat tour for four years and hear are some of the fun ways I have incorporated that experience into the tour.
Firstly, I announce in the staging area before people select their tour that an ASL guide will be accompanying us and that we will be learning some signs. When I begin tour, I introduce myself and I welcome the interpreter – having the interpreter demonstrate the welcome sign. I then use the welcome sign to welcome my families to the museum and the tour. I only ask the interpreter to demonstrate, I would not ask anyone in the group to demonstrate anymore than I would call on someone to answer a question – all participation by the families must be voluntary.
After discussion of an object, I ask the interpreter to teach us signs for key elements from the artwork and invite everyone to try it. I don’t plan what words I am going to ask for and I don’t know the sign in advance, but the signs have luckily connected so well with whatever we have been talking that even the adults go “ahh”.
For example: In “Breakfast Still Life with Glass and Metalwork” by Jan Jansz den Uyl, we were looking for owls that are hidden in the painting. We discussed the prominent feature of an owl, the eyes, and also looked for owl eyes (of which there are many). I even showed them clip art of an owl in which the artist had highlighted the eyes. I asked the interpreter to teach us the sign for owl, and it was formed by holding your hands in front of your eyes, like binoculars and then twisting them inward and repeating. This provided an additional and physical connection to the artwork. And we all went “ahh.”
I think sign language has really enriched those tours. First of all, it gives the children something fun to do with their hands in the “no touch” zone that is museum life! But people of all ages really seem to enjoy learning the signs, I know I do, and connecting them to the art makes both more memorable.
Finally, in my wrap-up, I thank everyone for their participation and the interpreter teaches us the thank you sign. I think it’s good to know how to say thank you in a many languages as possible!
Managing the Tour Program Portion of School Vacation Week
To Do List
2 Months Before
Select objects for tour
Schedule training session
Collect and duplicate information on objects
1 Month Before
Post sign-up sheet
Email all potential volunteers with the tour information: objects, length, date of training session, dates, times
As soon as sign-up is full, contact volunteers to see if they have preference/restriction as to time slots
Make up schedule and send it to all volunteers – ask them to make sure the time slot/s you have assigned to them are acceptable
Attend training session, write up notes and distribute to all volunteers
Give training session to any who could not attend
Send individual emails with any last minute instructions (who to contact in case of emergency, parking policies) and reminding them of their times. Ask for a confirmation.
Buy chocolate (optional but highly recommended - I don’t buy it any earlier due to personal tempatation)
Monitor emails and phone messages for emergencies
Night before: email friendly reminders of their time slot/s
Night of: email thank you note and ask for feedback on their day/tour
Leave personal schedule open to substitute or help out as needed