Sharing Authority: Creating Inclusive Dialogue in the Museum

Sharing Authority: Creating Inclusive Dialogue in the Museum Photo courtesy of Andrew Palamara

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.

As a result, I started facilitating in-gallery workshops as a complement to the regular lecture-based trainings for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum. These workshops are hour-long trainings led by the Learning & Interpretation (L&I) staff and devoted to topics ranging from gallery teaching techniques to using various analog and digital touring tools. Some workshops also revolve around cultural or social issues that allow us to interpret the museum's collection in a contemporary context.

The workshops have a few main objectives. It was important to establish an environment in which docents and staff can share ideas and thoughts with each other. Whether we're discussing a playful gallery activity or a serious social issue, everyone deserves the opportunity to speak their mind and participate in the conversation. Before we break down barriers with our visitors, docents and staff have to do it amongst ourselves. Building that culture of dialogue and two-way interaction together is another vital element. Essentially, the workshops are models for the types of gallery experiences that we aim to facilitate for visitors. In a broader sense, the format demonstrates how culture is something that is created by a group of people, not simply established by precedent. This is particularly relevant to connecting current cultural and social issues to the museum's collection, and it sets the table for discussing those issues in a responsible and empathetic manner.

Last year, one of our more successful workshops revolved around the associations we make between beauty and the human figure. Visitors come to museums with their own biases about the beauty of human figures, and so do we. It's important for us to ask ourselves: What is beauty? Who defines it and how?

We started by examining the New Oxford Dictionary definitions of beauty (a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, and form, that pleases the aesthetic senses) and aesthetic (concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty). There's a feedback loop in which beauty is defined by aesthetics, which is dictated by beauty, and that's a good place to start when challenging our assumptions. Then, we compared two paintings depicting women in different ways. One, by Ferdinand Hodler, features two nearly identical women posing confidently in blue dresses while another, by Moses Soyer, shows a half-nude woman sitting and leaning over a table, covering her face from the viewer. I asked the group if they found either or both beautiful, but also to explain why they felt that way. Without putting anyone on the spot, it's important to ask those kinds of follow-up questions to give others the time and space to fully reflect and share their experience. Everyone has had an experience dealing with what our culture tells us is attractive or beautiful. When we include visitors' voices and perspectives, it not only bolsters the conversation about the artwork, but sends the message to visitors that museums are places where everyone is welcome.

Later in the workshop, I gave each docent a set of three cards. One had "alluring" written on it, another said "unappealing", and the third was blank. The docents set each card below the artwork that they felt was the best representation of that word. On the blank card, the docents were encouraged to write their own word. After a few minutes, we chose a few artworks to discuss based on the cards that the docents had used. For example, if there were several "unappealing" cards at one artwork, we would walk over to that artwork and open the floor for dialogue. This proved to be an effective way to include everyone in the conversation because each person had unique reasons for thinking one artwork was alluring and another was unappealing, and vice versa. Some of the words that docents voluntarily wrote included "strength", "jarring", and "mystical".

This can be adapted for different audiences and even for museums of all kinds, but a simple prompt like this can empower many visitors to participate. For the first-time visitor, forming a complete interpretation might be intimidating. Choosing one word is a much more accessible path to engagement. Not every issue or topic can be addressed this way, but the ultimate goal for docents is to think about methods like this that shift the group dynamic from one that places the docent as the sole expert to one that is based on shared authority and inclusion.

ANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he's not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team.


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