Insights from "Beyond Art History" Webinar

Anne Minteer, Docent, San Diego Museum of Art and NDSC Programs Committee Member

Have you ever been challenged when engaging adults on a docent tour? Find yourself still focusing on history and “information.” Struggled to get visitors to talk at all? As docents, many of us face these challenges as individuals return to our institutions in increasingly larger numbers post-pandemic. In March, two docents from the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Craig Anderson and Karen Skillett, were the guest speakers at an NDSC webinar Beyond Art History: Creating Great Tour Experiences that provided ways to facilitate vibrant conversations.

Over 950 docents and museum educators registered for the event which was a repeat of abreakout session Craig and Karen presented at the 2022 National Docent Symposium in KansasCity. Here are some highlights of their presentation:

Tour Introductions

Remember to start your tour off with introductions that put visitors at ease and let them know what to expect. For example:

  • Learn who visitors are and where they are from. This can allow you to connect with them and may shed light on information you can use later in discussions about the art.
  • Set the tone for the time together and be enthusiastic, warm, and friendly. Use humor and emphasize having fun.
  • Let guests know that the tour will be interactive, conversational, and participatory. Mention that you are interested in the visitors’ ideas and perceptions and that there all perspectives are welcome when it comes to what we think or see in artwork.

Visual Thinking Strategies

Use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) during tours. VTS is a teaching method that provides for open-ended discussions about visual art. This technique can spark creativity and critical thinking when visitors experience a work. It also encourages closer looking, allowing visitors to draw on their own experience, ideas, and perceptions when looking at an artwork.

The VTS-based questions include:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

The Art Experience Wheel

Jan Schall, a retired curator of Contemporary Art at the Nelson-Atkins, developed a tool called the Art Experience Wheel that provides an organizational framework for more interactive visitor experiences.The Art Experience Wheel provides a simple way for docents to prepare for touring a work of art, laying the groundwork for multiple entry points to pave the way for a robust conversation with visitors. The tool helps facilitate 3-dimensional conversations between the docent and a group of visitors in addition to conversations among visitors themselves.

Docents complete an Art Experience Wheel “homework sheet” in advance of a tour with conversational entry points, such as:

  • Medium: oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc.
  • Subject depicted: Who are these people?
  • What’s this about?
  • Formal elements: color, line, shape, texture, etc.
  • Design principles: balance, proportion, harmony, etc.
  • Function: themes the artist wanted to explore such as the human condition or cultural issues
  • Artist biography
  • Context: what was happening at the time and in the place this piece was created
  • Meaning: message, symbols in the work
  • Viewer experience: the visitor’s emotional and intellectual responses to the work

The process develops deep knowledge of the artwork and helps prepare docents to engage with visitors from any entry point. It also helps prepare the docent for surprises, such as when a visitor asks to talk about a piece of art not planned for in the tour.

Directed Looking Questions

Directed looking questions can facilitate visitor conversation and learning during a tour. Try to use open-ended questions that move visitors around the Art Experience Wheel. Dropping pearls of information related to visitor comments is much more memorable than an art history lecture.

These concepts give docents important, additional tools to use when crafting tours. In the end,using visitor questions and comments to facilitate vibrant conversations is a win-win that makes the tour experience richer and more memorable for all.

Handouts from this presentation:

Watch the Webinar HERE

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