Here, you will find articles and links about efforts in our institutions to promote docent practices that encourage diversity, equity and inclusion. We hope this initiative will encourage exchange of ideas among our peers. Be a contributor. See guidelines for submissions.
Find online resources on inclusion and diversity here
By Michelle Carpenter, Docent, Phoenix Art Museum; Regional Director, NDSC (August 2018)
As a volunteer at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Expo in May, I was fortunate to observe and participate in several workshops. Many centered around the theme of diversity and inclusiveness. A session titled, Empathy-Building through Museums, drew over 200 attendees who experienced first-hand what empathy-building might look and feel like in a museum setting. Excellent resources on the topic are available online, and select links are shared below.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
By Frances Bleviss, Gallery Guide, Art Gallery of Ontario (August 2018)
“Diversity is when everybody’s invited to the party…Inclusion means that everybody is asked to dance.”
Dr. Johnetta Cole, Former Director of The Smithsonian Museum of African Art
Canada, as a nation, is engaged in the process of Reconciliation, working at making amends for the unjust treatment of its Indigenous Peoples. Canada’s First Nations, The Inuit of Canada’s North, and The Metis rightfully claim their rights as full and equal citizens, entitled to the treatment Canada has traditionally afforded those who came to its shores as immigrants.
Appropriately, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is responding to the need to ensure the gallery presents Canada’s historical and present narratives from multiple points-of-view. Both the Vision and Mission Statements of the AGO make reference to a greater and more diverse community. This has given rise to a clear focus on the decolonization of the gallery and its collection. One of the lenses of Interpretation is, “Telling the story from a point of view that considers the simultaneous histories and perspectives.” In the galleries, “language will be inclusive, contemporary and accessible.”
By Mina Shea, President, NDSC, Docent, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (July 2018)
Photo: Mina Shea at the Japanese American National Museum
As President of the National Docent Symposium Council (and a docent), I have the great privilege of learning from and sometimes visiting an amazing range of cultural institutions in both the US and Canada.
A recent visit to Los Angeles was an opportunity to connect personally with the educational staff of some of the larger institutions already familiar with our organization. I also discovered two very important cultural institutions: The Museum of Tolerance (MOT) and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Robert Moriguchi, a docent of 20 years with the Japanese American National Museum guided us through the primary exhibition "Common Ground: The Heart of the Community." Bob shared his personal experience in an internment camp during WWII and began the tour by saying that the Japanese American story is an American story, and that history is an important teacher.
Deb Hansen, Docent, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa (June 2018)
I recently facilitated a tour of the Des Moines Art Center for a group of fourth-grade students. At the first stop along the tour, I noticed that a girl was responding to my questions about the painting with comments that had nothing to do with the art. Her behavior was noticeably different from her peers, she interrupted other students with remarks that were off-topic, moved constantly, and bumped into her peers and the walls as we moved around the museum. My first thought was that unless I started making some adjustments, the tour would not be a success for her or for the other twelve children in the group. My job was not to guess why the girl was challenged by the museum setting. My job was not to ascribe a label or to make assumptions about her behavior. My job in this and every tour is to use every strategy in my docent repertoire to make sure that she and every student felt safe, respected, and valued, and had the chance to have a great experience in the museum.
Quickly recalling strategies for helping students with special needs, I asked the group to sit down in front of our next stop, positioning the girl beside me and praised her for following directions. To keep her and others engaged, I implemented a series of techniques, such as seeking quiet areas of the museum, paraphrasing students' comments, and having students walk with a partner between works.
By Gin Wachter, Docent, St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri, President of the Docent Council of Metropolitan Saint Louis and Advisor for the NDSC (June 2018)
On March 26, 2018 the Missouri Historical Society (MHS) presented "Accessibility and Inclusivity Forum" with the Docent Council of Metropolitan Saint Louis. The Historical Society was the first recipient of the Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Award from American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in 2017. That same year MHS was also honored with the Shine the Light Award from Paraquad, a local nonprofit that supports people with disabilities. The MHS is modest in saying that there is still work to be done, and that their accessibility committee is continually advancing their efforts to make history available to all.
The Forum started with a lecture by Sharon Smith, Curator of Civic and Personal Identity. As a long time staff member of the MHS she led us through the Missouri Historical Society's Journey to Inclusivity. It was not an easy task to do on their own so they worked with many local organizations to help them reach their goals. Some of those organizations include the Alzheimer's Association, local Visually Impaired organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, Hearing Loss societies and other disability groups and many more.
Sheila Vidmar, Docent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD and NDSC Director at Large (June 2018)
The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored a series of lectures entitled Creating Cultural Contexts. The first such talk, Museum Displays and Power Dynamics, featured Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator who is currently Senior Museum Educator the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Docents were asked to attend this lecture in place of the usual weekly enrichment session, and study materials were provided to docents before the lecture.
Ms. Hendrick asked her audience to address the intersections of power, racism, and cultural appropriation. She suggested principles for building racial and cultural equity in the museum setting, including: prioritize people over objects, focus on consequence over intention, engage in authentic listening, provide contextual information that considers power and identity, and acknowledge multiple narratives. She issued a call to action that resonates for docents: Identify one thing you can commit to doing to combat racial or cultural inequity in museums.
By Sharon Edlow, Docent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (May, 2018)
For many years, the Walters Art Museum has offered themed tours for children as young as kindergarten age. Young children really enjoy seeing pieces of art up close and walking around a large building with new surprises around every corner. Most are involved with art in their classrooms and looking for line, color, texture and shape in a museum piece helps them create their own art with a new understanding.
In the fall of 2016 Allie Smith, Museum Educator, introduced a new program for an even younger audience. This idea grew from previous partnerships with Head Start centers in Baltimore City. Our Pre-K tours target children ages three to five who are attending Early Childhood Centers or Pre-K programs housed in schools. Before the program began, fifteen docents volunteered to attend three training sessions. We discussed Early Learning pedagogy and adapting current tours to meet the needs of young children. We then had the opportunity to model our new tours. Everyone who had the training remains very excited about guiding our young visitors on this new adventure. Our goal is to help these children feel comfortable in a museum setting and to create an engaging experience that will encourage them to want to make return visits and view art positively. Current Early Childhood Education research confirms that young children greatly benefit by being active learners -exploring their environment, manipulating objects, asking questions, and by being given the opportunity to follow their own interests. This belief forms the basis of our program.
By Bryan Brooks, Docent Board Chair, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia (March, 2018)
Over the past few years, the Education team at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has been committed to providing docent training focused on diversity and inclusion, including bringing in experts to speak with the docent corps about topics such as:
● Working with English Language Learners
● Differentiated Learning and Inclusivity
● Stepping Into a New Era: Surviving and Thriving with Mixed Abilities
● Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum
About a year and half ago, key leaders on the Docent Board decided they would like to support the efforts of the High's staff by creating a docent-led committee dedicated to diversity and inclusion. What started out as an ad-hoc committee quickly found its voice and became the Docent Diversity, Inclusion, and Retention Committee. The Committee now functions as a vital and permanent part of the board that meets bimonthly with education staff and is comprised of a cross section of current and past Docent Board leadership and an intergenerational group of active docents.
By Shelagh Barrington, Gallery Guide and Volunteer President, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada (March, 2018)
As volunteers within our cultural organizations we need to understand the make-up of our communities.
Toronto is an increasingly multicultural and multilingual city. The 2016 Canadian census showed that 51.5% of Toronto's population identified as visible minorities, compared to 49.1% in 2011, 43.7% in 2001 and 13.6% in 1981.
Over 140 languages and dialects are spoken here, and just over 30 per cent of Toronto residents speak a language, other than the two official national languages, English or French, at home.
As the population of the City of Toronto diversifies, galleries like my own need to recognize what diversity means in terms of changing audiences and interests. To continue to attract and grow the number of residents attending our gallery and special exhibitions we need to respect and respond to how diversity shapes those interests.
By Andrew Palamara, Assistant Director for Docent Learning, Cincinnati Art Museum,Cincinnati, Ohio (March, 2018)
I've been thinking about authority and how it relates to learning in museums. When the first museums were established centuries ago, their prime function was to be institutions of authority. Museums were places where you learned which objects were of greatest importance, and most early museum education programs were designed to teach the lay people how to have proper taste in art, history, or culture. Like most organizations that evolve over time, museums have shifted from that original purpose to one that is based on making their collections accessible to all.
For most museums, docents have been the fulcrum in this shift and have the tall task of changing with the times with consistency and grace. In the past, docents were generally trained to be the epitome of authority. They were taught by lecture and expected to educate the public by lecture. As museums changed, so did their demands of the docents. Guided tours became vehicles for dialogue with visitors rather than a transmission of information from docent to the public, and engagement was the benchmark of a successful museum program. That dynamic is still very much the norm, and rightfully so, but there is a new layer to consider: the voices and perspectives of museum visitors. Incorporating and including visitors in the museum experience is the most urgent and vital task facing museum educators, paid and volunteer alike.