What can Docents Learn from a Sunday at Church? Storytelling for the Galleries

On one cold snowy Saturday, I found myself sitting on a hard wooden pew while doing some mental algebra.  I was reading a wedding program and assessing the priest’s style with the hope of counting the minutes left before I could escape this country church.  While I certainly shared the joy of the congregation of the nuptials in progress, unlike the vast majority of those assembled I had not been raised in this faith.  Over the years, the celebration of the mass held my attention best in the moments of physical performance when doctrine is made active ritual.  The liturgy, likely the moment when the believers feel the greatest flourish of faith, is often lost on me.  I say this more to set the stage for what happened on that Saturday (and certainly not to offend any faithful amongst you.)

In the last decade at the museum, we have offered fewer and fewer lectures.  We are not alone.  The national museum culture seems focused on interactivity in information dissemination in order to remain relevant for our visitorship.  How do we make things more interactive? When we bring in national and international scholars, we often prep them to give their talks in a way that suggests that visitors need to feel connected and entertained.  In other words, we are suggesting, if in a round about way—don’t lecture.  In the same period, we have also offered many fewer paid lecture series for adults taught by staff.  Instead, members of the museum can attend university courses as auditors; many of these classes are discussion-based.

And, then finally, but certainly not least, how has gallery teaching changed?  Over the years, we have tried, in some cases actually accomplished, to make the gallery experience interactive.  Interactive in this sense means that spoken interaction is the main means of distributing content.  The lynchpin in this is facilitating spoken interaction, something that seems almost antithetical to the raison d’etre for some docents.  Docents often join the corps to share information, for didactic or self-serving reasons.  This desire to share often manifests itself in unstructured, and unmediated, verbal spew.  Reformulating this into something that visitors will enjoy can be hard.  Having hard won specialist knowledge, docents can be reticent to metaphorically give up the glory of the “stage” to stand alongside the unknowing visitor proletariat.

This takes me back to that moment when I sat in a church as an unknowing congregant.  The priest stood up to speak his liturgy.   I can vividly remember the basic elements of the lecture that a woman and man in marriage must obey each other and this pair is the central building block of society.  Even as someone who doesn’t necessarily hold those tenets true, I found the lecture compelling.  The priest had no notes.  He began to speak with us about faith and community.  Here was lecture at its best.   The whole talk was well thought out.  Its cyclical structure meant that the conclusion brought the introduction to the satisfying whole.  The priest made the public feel welcome not only through his body language but also his verbal language.  He never once used a term that I as an uninitiated didn’t understand.  And, most of all, the lecture could be understood on many levels.   In essence, a good lecture is a story with a clear point and broad appeal.   Basically the priest spun a good yarn.

I really believe that the popularity of Tedx and the Moth indicates that people are yearning for good stories.  Story Corps keeps people in their cars listening to NPR long after they have arrived at their destinations.   Museums as caretakers of the public collections are ideal places for stories. Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories is a direct relative to Story Corps where visitors share their feelings about the collection.  Along with visitor stories, the Met’s Connections staff speak about one topic, like White.   Storytelling in the museum context could go even further. 

This brings me back to docents.  Leading spoken interactivity can be difficult.  It places the leader in a position of appearing you aren’t in control.  You have push people to take ownership of the experience.  You have to willingly and repeatedly cede the floor.  (Of course, this is leadership at its best, but that is another post.)  But, also, for so many docents, this is not what they want to do.  They want to give gallery talks, i.e. they want to talk.  They want to impart information they have learned.  They want to lecture. 

So, this brings me to an issue I have been  thinking about recently.  How can you teach your docents to tell powerful stories?  Or said, differently, how can you transform your docents desire to lecture into the ability to tell a compelling story?  And for what audience would docent stories be best used? After all, just as in that country church, the goal for gallery events is that everyone feels connected and learns from the experience so much that they come back next week.

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