Experiences Make Better Docents

Betsy Burgess and Linda Miller, Docents, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno NV (Spring 2022)

The Nevada Museum of Art currently has an exhibition of works by Jean LaMarr, a native American artist. Museum docents and staff felt it was important when presenting her art to learn the story of the local Stewart Indian residential school, one of over 500 Indian residential schools operational in the US from 1890 to about 1980.

“Experiences Make Better Docents” is a Nevada Museum of Art program to develop empathy and understanding of the lives and cultural backgrounds of diverse populations, to be better guides for our visitors. Lack of knowledge about the recent history and culture of Native American people presented challenges to the docents presenting the art.  Museum staff arranged an opportunity to learn more.  

The museum has a long and cordial relationship with Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum which assisted with the planning of the visit. Small groups ensured plenty of time for discussion around the candid stories told by their guides. Their stories directly informed multiple works in the Jean LaMarr exhibition and provided docents with more background to share with visitors.

Following the visit to the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum our museum staff and docents followed up with discussions about how the experience assisted them to better understand contemporary issues in Native American art.

Docents felt a better understanding of LaMarr’s painting, Just Wanna Dance, in which a young Native American woman is "conflicted by daily choices, caught between identifying with the contemporary culture, or her historical heritage.”

NDSC Better Experiences 1 Just Wanna DanceJean LaMarr, Just Wanna Dance

Another series of Jean LaMarr works’, called “Reversing the Gaze,” calls out the stereotyping, typical of past representations of young Native American women as Pocahontas figures. A photograph of a topless young Native American woman (taken by an army photographer to sell to soldiers) is shown alongside a work by Jean LaMarr of a fully clothed Native American women in the same pose. LaMarr’s works give docents the opportunity to discuss the demeaning of Native American women, the concept of “the gaze,” and how artists can demean or restore dignity to women.

    NDSC Experiences 2 Military                     NDSC Experiences 3 CoverGirl

Our museum also created several multimedia experiences, symposiums, documentaries, and events open to docents and the public, with key speakers from the Native American community. These experiences are recorded and posted for anyone to review at their convenience.  For more information, visit the museum's website.

Included in the Jean LaMarr exhibition is a sculpture work commissioned by our museum, of a healing lodge, “sweat.” It is dedicated to healing the traumas resulting from the residential boarding school experience. The images on “sweat” portray experiences, meant to westernize the native children by cutting off the children’s braids and dressing them in western clothes. Our docents can now relate these images to the stories they were told.

NDSC Experiences 4 sweat                                                                                                   

The field trip contributed to the creation of lasting personal memories and provided a path to deeper understanding.  Docents should be encouraged to research, read and where possible visit local sites pertaining to the culture and histories of the peoples whose art they are introducing to their museum visitors.  The docents at the Nevada Museum of Art are fortunate to have  museum staff interested in providing us with these opportunities.