Organizing a Virtual Tour: The Good, The Bad, and the Difficult

Sharon Bazarian, Docent Chair, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College (June 2020)

Museum docents are now mastering a novel method of bringing art education to the public: “the Virtual Museum Tour.” Back on March 13, when seemingly everything, including our McMullen Museum, closed because of COVID-19, our docent group thought we would be back up and running in a month. When a month had passed, we realized we needed a new approach. Fortunately, we are a university museum and have numerous resources at our disposal, so the idea of a virtual tour was born. 

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For the past four years, the McMullen Museum’s Manager of Education, Outreach & Digital Resources, Rachel Chamberlain, has enlisted the help of a group of undergraduate Student Ambassadors, to create virtual walkthroughs of each exhibition. These walkthroughs provide visitors with an opportunity to revisit previous shows and move through the gallery spaces. Luckily, Rachel and the students had completed the virtual walkthrough of Indian Ocean Current, our most recent exhibition,  just prior to closing.  This provided us with a foundation for virtual learning. With access to Zoom, Rachel suggested we experiment with giving a virtual tour. The Zoom platform, allowing one to share the screen while talking, gives docents a means to guide visitors through the space, complete with pop-up gallery elements they could click on to see each object in the exhibition–pretty cool!

Prior to the Museum closing, docents had participated in extensive training on Indian Ocean Current. Docents had an early introduction by co-curator Prasannan Parthasarathi, a close-up walkthrough of the finished exhibition and discussion of its main themes during the opening week, and a catalogue of essays by distinguished authors alongside supplemental materials. Docents had already embarked on practice sessions prior to giving in-person tours. Thus, when it came time to adapt our tours to a virtual format, we had already written scripts and prepared our routes through the exhibition space.

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For our first virtual tour, we decided to enlist three docents who would each present a section of the exhibition. The use of multiple docents, we thought, would enliven the tour and keep our visitors’ attention. This docent team came together with teamwork, bravery, and can-do attitudes. Together, we practiced our presentations and learned how to utilize technology to hone our presentation techniques. This endeavor was not without its challenges. We adopted many things, mostly through trial and error. Practice was key to making the tour flow smoothly; certain functions like unmuting/muting, sharing the screen, and navigation, had to become second nature. We were fortunate to have Rachel as our technological expert, as her knowledge of the intricacies of Zoom presentations proved extremely helpful.

At Rachel’s suggestion, we added poll questions and shared results throughout the tour to engage visitors further. Since we were expecting a large number of visitors joining us for the Zoom event, we decided to present the tour as a webinar. Visitors were not visible or able to speak, though they could use the chat function to submit questions. Rachel, as the moderator, responded via chat to those questions. Time was left at the end for Q&A so that visitors could submit additional questions for any of the presenters to answer live.

Overall, we were happy to learn a new means of presenting. While we didn’t have the in-person experience, the format has the capacity to maintain its personal and educational character. These virtual tours offer an opportunity to reach even more potential art lovers. Even when this pandemic ends, we can offer tours to a variety of groups who are not able to visit our museum, whether home-bound, children’s groups, remote students, or people not local to Boston. This opens a unique channel for the museum to offer programs, tours, and educational experiences, and maybe even special events for members. Things we might add, for example, are close-ups of the artwork and subtitles for the hearing impaired.

Consider how you can implement virtual tours at your museum! Feel free to email me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) if you have questions or suggestions. We’re all learning as we go!