Docents Reach Across Disciplines to Discover New Stories

Ellen Lautz, Regional Director for Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia (Summer 2020)

How can museums with different focuses (art, history, nature, science, space) coordinate projects and better serve their communities? In Washington, D.C. the Smithsonian Institute volunteers tackle this idea through a docent consortium which holds an annual workshop open to all Smithsonian docents. One of its goals is, “We will work together as One Smithsonian to amplify the power of the stories we tell, increasing both our reach and our impact.” It allows discussion on ways to explore unexpected connections between Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (i.e. STEAM).

On Saturday, February 29, 2020, Smithsonian docents met to debate the topic, Collaboration Opportunities Among SI Museums. Kicking off the annual meeting was a presentation and panel discussion led by Joanna Marsh, Deputy Education Chair of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). She described the SAAM Re:Frame project. This innovative project brings together SAAM art historians and researchers from across the Smithsonian, including zoologists, geologists, musicologists, and astronomers, to explore the many meanings within a work of art. The concept of developing pan-institutional projects to foster collaboration across disciplines has great potential to reach a wide range of audiences. Re:Frame was also shown at the National Docent Symposium in October, 2019 in Washington, D.C. It is available on the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) website at SAAM's website: Welcome to Re:Frame.

Following this session, docents divided into smaller groups to explore ways in which the 25 institutions represented could coordinate their visitor programming. There was an interest in learning more about the artifacts in the collections at the various museums, and observing tours and presentations by other docents with a goal of finding ways to partner in providing tours. Joint tours with guest docents were discussed as well as the shared use of technology to expand the breadth of tours. Docents who do spotlight tours with carts and hands-on activities could also highlight materials from other museums. Topics discussed that could work for several of the participating museums included Climate Change, Migration and Garbage Disposal.

NDSC SIDE photo Ellen

Unfortunately, just as this effort was getting underway all the Smithsonian museums were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A Google chat group has been set up to continue future discussions virtually. Chair Phoebe Kline reports that SIDE members are  looking at how technology can play an important role in expanding our audience reach, in connecting people with our varied collections, and in promoting an exchange of knowledge and ideas among docents in and beyond the Smithsonian family.

About SIDE

The Smithsonian Institution Docent Exchange (SIDE) is a docent consortium organized and run by docents. Meetings are held bi-monthly with the objective to improve docent-visitor interaction by providing docents with a forum for discussion of touring-related issues. Membership is open to every Smithsonian Docent Program in the Washington D.C. area, with two docents representing each program on the steering committee. Currently, the museums that participate are the Smithsonian Castle, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of African Art, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American History, Anacostia Community Museum, Freer|Sackler Galleries, National Museum of Natural History, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Portrait Gallery, and National Postal Museum.