Docent Enrichment in the Age of Social Distancing

By Sheila Vidmar, Docent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Docents are life-long learners. When the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore closed to the public on March 13, 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, docents at the Walters Art Museum learned to operate in new ways, using an online platform to continue socializing, learning and planning for the future.

Walters docents typically meet on Monday mornings between September and May for continuing education, training on special exhibitions, and learning from each other through discussion. But all Monday meetings were cancelled due to the social distancing imposed by COVID-19. By March 24, docent leaders and responsible staff had agreed on a plan to meet via an online meeting platform on Monday, March 30.

We chose Zoom as a platform. The first step was to introduce docents to the new format. Email blasts to active docents contained instructions on using Zoom, and a “trial run” Zoom meeting was set. The trial run covered access, video settings, audio muting and unmuting, and the “raise hand” function so that the meeting could be conducted in an orderly fashion.

Thirty-five docents attended the first Monday “meeting,” a number consistent with in-person sessions. After that meeting, the docent staff manager sent a short 6-question survey to all docents to capture ideas and gauge enthusiasm for digital learning. Also, after that meeting, several volunteers called and emailed with those who had not participated to iron out some technical problems and fears. The next week, 45 docents participated.

Based on the survey responses, most docents were interested in digital learning. Thoughtful suggestions for content emerged. Several docents volunteered to make presentations to the group. Those who volunteered to make presentations met in small groups to learn the mechanics of online sharing.

Meeting online has its limitations. Only one person can speak at a time. The administrator must be careful, especially in large meetings, to make sure that participants have muted their microphones so that barking dogs, ringing doorbells, and inconvenient outbursts from family members don’t disrupt the session. Orderly discussion is possible if participants use the online “raise hand” function. In smaller groups of up to about 10, lively real-time discussion is possible. Most platforms also allow for some version of a chat function, allowing a member to send a typed message to meeting participants. And it is easy to see who is online, and who is speaking. Names appear under pictures, and some docents noted that this was a good way to become more acquainted with the newest docents.

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Any content that could be presented on screen in an auditorium can be presented digitally. PowerPoint presentations, video clips, documents and spreadsheets can be easily accessed and shared with the group. On-screen annotation and highlighting are possible. A presenter can also share the content of the desktop, so that participants can watch the navigation to websites and other online content during the meeting.

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Of course, there is no real substitute for in-gallery learning, but the online platform is well-suited to looking at paintings and photographs. Details can be highlighted in several ways – by on-screen annotation, real-time magnification on screen, or cropping to show a detail from the image. While the platform has limited usefulness for discerning texture and depth, docents familiar with the works of art can discuss from memory or make notes for future viewing. Museums will open again one day!

Walters docents now have a full schedule of digital enrichment activities through mid-May. Docents have gained confidence using the system, and in making presentations. Sub-groups, such as the docent book club and the docent executive committee, will also be meeting digitally. We anticipate that this new learning tool will continue to inform our training practices even after the current crisis is in the rear-view mirror.

There’s no turning back!