LivingArts: Who Owns This Tour?


Recently I’ve been interviewing potential volunteers to become part of the education team at the gallery where I work, and one of the discussion points that often comes up is regarding scripting.  Believe me, this is a very contentious issue.

Historically, many galleries’ education departments provided scripts for their docents with more or less rigidity and detail, and I know from conferences that I have attended that this is still practiced in many larger institutions.  This is not how I do things.

Early in my career, I was excited about providing people with perfect, relevant, accurate information.  I thought that the more I controlled a programme or tour, the more likely it was to succeed.  There can also be a vested interest from some curators, artists or others who are responsible for the creation of an artwork or exhibition to ensure that visitors hear exactly the right message.  Handing over control to others can be tough.

Since then, I have learned that the relevant and correct information is only one part of the equation.  I’ve also been reminded that one person’s perspective (mine) is not the only one.  What is as important as the facts is engagement, passion and confidence.  I have seen this demonstrated again and again with my team and with tours I have followed in various museum settings.  The best tour is one that the person leading it is the most invested in, the most excited about, and the one where they believe in what they are saying.  Passion and enjoyment comes across loud and clear (as does boredom).

I’ve just observed two tours of the same exhibition today, led by two different docents – one an artist and one a former teacher.  There was some overlap in their choices of work, and much of the information they shared with their groups was similar but each took their own experiences and interests and crafted an individual discussion that was insightful, informative and most importantly, engaging for their visitors.  Their groups went away having learned new information and new strategies for looking at and thinking about art.  As an Educator I can’t ask for more.

What I’ve learned is that allowing for multiple voices and perspectives in any public programme can only lead to better results.  The walls are falling in the institutional ivory tower of one-way communication, and our audiences want opportunities for participation, personal engagement on their terms, and a feeling of life and relevance that starts at the point where we turn the precious objects over to those who love them and let them go.