Tour Guides love to talk, especially to one another. Sadly, we rarely have the opportunity. And so once every two to three years we eagerly convene for a good dose of shoptalk at the Twin Cities Art Museum Guide Symposium. This year felt especially momentous given the changing landscape of cultural institutions and the evolving role of museum education (evidenced by the recent New York Times article, “From Show and Look to Show and Teach,” in which our very own Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice Sarah Schultz was quoted). We had a lot to discuss.
The symposium began with a galvanizing keynote speech by Kelly McKinley, Director of Education Programming at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Titled “Crafting Relationships One Conversation at a Time,” McKinley addressed the particular challenges that museum education faces today, and outlined new strategies to connect with our public. What can we do with what we already have? What can we make better?
We are all familiar with the concept of “experiential learning” at the Walker – it’s a cornerstone of the art center’s mission. Now it is the driving focus for most museums. Why? Because museums face more competition for an audience than ever. There are still the usual crowd-pilfering suspects—sports, movies, shopping malls—but McKinley pointed out that we also have to contend with the lure of the couch. With the mind-boggling array of technologies available to the average consumer, art is accessible with just one click, so what is the point of leaving the house only to deal with parking, admission fees and tired feet? With the Google Art Project alone, a person can peruse the collections of over 155 institutions in their pajamas. Clearly, museums need to come up with more compelling reasons to get people off the couch!
Museum educators must face the fact that new technologies will continue to develop, offering people information however and whenever they want it. The authority of a museum is no longer paramount, and a passive audience is becoming extinct. People want to customize their experience at a high level, make their own meaning and craft their own significance. They no longer want to simply learn, they want to participate. Even the word education sounds suspiciously “school-y.” The new contextual model of learning is personal, physical, and socio-cultural. Its goal is to facilitate connections between people and art. In order to continue to build relationships, increase participation, and grow our audience, museum practitioners must look into the assets that we already have: our people.
With those provocative ideas planted in our minds, the tour guides settled into a seriously stimulating afternoon. It was hard to choose which breakout sessions to attend with the enticing array of titles such as “Evidence of Impact: What does visitor research tell us?,” “iPads on Tour,” “Complexities of Touring: addressing cultural misconceptions and intrusive questions,” and “Engaging Resistant Visitors: How Can We Draw Mr. X into the Tour?” But no matter: every discussion was thought provoking, even the ones in the hallway on the way to the bathroom! One particularly rich session was “Evidence of Impact: What Does Visitor Research Tell Us” led by the Walker’s Curt Lund. Participants took turns articulating their concept of what it means to learn within a tour context. A few of the answers included “creating an experience,” “engaging in conversation,” “inspiring a sense of wonder.” I was especially impressed by how visitor research can define the big ideas that can shape our practice. Lund left us with a short but comprehensive list of online resources about learning in museums. I can’t wait to start reading more.
Here are some of the most salient threads of the day:
Customization and personalization: The idea of museum authority has been displaced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it opens new venues for dialogue. Tour customization occurs on both the analog level in the form of special groups, multisensory tours, and motivation types and on the technological level by adding iPads, iPhones, user-generated content, Facebook and Twitter to our arsenal.
Semantics: Recently the Minneapolis Institute of Arts changed the name of the Department of Education to the Department of Learning. This simple adjustment indicates a shift in focus from the internal to the external. Calling the audience guests or facilitators instead of visitors is more inclusive. Many museums have done away with the somewhat archaic word docent in favor of the user-friendly tour guide. We might also be known as facilitators, i.e., catalysts for an experience of your own making.
Accessibility: The advent of multisensory tours for visually or hearing impaired and those with memory loss/dementia indicates a new sense of altruism in museum learning. This kind of tour puts the tour guide in a similar position as their audience as a fellow-explorer in search of a mutual experience. By way of illustration, McKinley cited a tour for the visually impaired in which the tour guide passed around a piece of felt to convey the bleeding colors of a Mark Rothko painting.
Community Outreach: Museums should be good neighbors and fulfill their civic duty. According to McKinley, “your neighbors need to think you’re a great museum, otherwise it doesn’t even matter if you’re a world class museum!” The Walker tour guides in the crowd exchanged glances: we know that we could do better in this regard. Initiatives such as free museum passes to new citizens, more free admission days, increased youth group access and partnerships with the VA hospital are all interesting possibilities.
New Kinds of Tours: The museum-going audience might not have time or inclination for a full-length tour. Different kinds of tours can engage unlikely people, including socially oriented versions like our evening Think and a Drink events or tour guides on call. Linking museum departments with a tour is another way to capture a specific audience, something the Walker has explored, for example, with pre-performance gallery tours. McKinley introduced the idea that audience motivation was more important than tour content, personal interest, or guide knowledge. Tours aimed at different motivational identities, such as the explorer, art aficionado, recharger or reluctant companion were much more likely to hit a bulls-eye.
New Kinds of Tour Guide: Tour guides no longer need to be art history experts. Instead there is a move to recruit guides who reflect the community’s diversity, as well specialist guides, graduate students, and part-timers. Again, the focus is no longer on content. We have transitioned from information imparter to conversation/experience facilitator. Information feeds rather than drives the tour experience.
So how do Tour Guides move forward? I intend to carry on McKinley’s uplifting claim that it all comes down to the people and the art and forging a connection between the two. Our opportunity lies in our people, and the symposium proved we are a mighty group indeed. Let’s keep the dialog going.