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  • Lyn Osgood

MIA GUIDES in K.C.: the National Docent Symposium 2022

A group of five Mia Guides recently attended the National Docent Symposium, an event which brings together docents and guides from all over the U.S. and Canada to learn and share ideas.First-timer Lyn Osgood gives an overview of their experience and what the NDS is all about.


Mia Guides at the Symposium (l to r): Lyn Osgood, Loreen Fripp, Anna Bethune, Fran Megarry and Sheila-Marie Untiedt. Photo: Lyn Osgood


What is the National Docent Symposium?

For those who have never heard of it, here are the basics: The National Docent Symposium is a three-day event where docents and guides from different museums around the U.S. and Canada come together to share ideas, information and techniques related to their work. It’s organized by the National Docent Symposium Council, a national volunteer organization dedicated to providing an ongoing forum for docent and guide education for over 40 years. The symposium takes place every other year, and is hosted by a different museum each time. The 2022 National Docent Symposium was held September 16-19 in Kansas City, Missouri, after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic.


(Please note that Mia no longer uses the designation of “docent” for our guides, but the National Docent Symposium Council still uses the term.)


This was my first-ever attendance at a National Docent Symposium, and I found it to be not only informative, but also super stimulating. I came away impressed with what other museums were doing and the programs they were implementing. I was also proud of Mia and how far ahead of the pack we are in addressing diversity, inclusion and empathy - all in the wake of a pandemic and community unrest.


I was accompanied by fellow Mia guides Loreen Fripp, Sheila-Marie Untiedt, Fran Megarry and Anna Bethune. Fran has been a member the National Docent Symposium Council for the last few years as one of two Midwest Regional Directors, and has spent many hours working for for the Council. Great job and congratulations on the end of your term, Fran!


The symposium experience

The event began with pre-tours Friday afternoon as participants arrived. Typically, the host of a symposium features the treasures of their city, and Kansas City offered a wide variety of them! There were tours at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the encyclopedic Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (the symposium host). Other offerings included a sneak peek at the brand-new Children’s Museum and, for the children at heart, the National Toy and Miniature Museum. One could visit the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, or tour museums featuring artist Thomas Hart Benton or President Harry S. Truman (both Missouri natives), as well as the National World War I Museum. Individuals and patrons also opened their gardens and their homes to share their private collections.


Friday was also the first official day of the three-day symposium. We began with keynote speaker Jane Chu, Ph.D, who served as chairperson of the National Endowment of the Arts from 2014-2018. While leading the NEA, she visited every U.S. state and continues to be excited about the ever-changing and important roles of docents across the country. Dr. Chu’s connection with Kansas City was her work overseeing the building campaign for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. She is presently a visual artist and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.


Her talk was titled “It’s the Perfect Time.” She reported on how communities can be engaged in the arts and the benefits that result, such as cultural districts which can bring variety, expression and vitality to a community. Her ending message was to be proud of your institution and to connect people to it and also to you. She was awesome and inspiring!


Forty-five interactive breakout sessions were offered over the next two days, of which participants could attend up to four and learn from the experiences of other museums. For example, “Art for All” was centered around diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) and was facilitated by the Milwaukee Art Museum. We explored how to include these perspectives in real-world tour scenarios. One technique is to ask these questions while we look at art: 1) Whose perspective is represented? 2) Whose perspective is not represented? This could be done by looking at a work and considering its representation of class and wealth - What led to it? Who contributed?


Another session, “Thirty Minutes with the Treasures” (presented by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) showed how that museum created virtual thirty-minute lunchtime tours using no more than three works of art. The tours were limited to less than 10 participants with a docent and host-guide. Their goal was to create intimacy and dialogue within the tour, so as to keep participants feeling connected to the museum during the pandemic.


Lynch Family by Joseph Hirsch. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, © Estate of Joseph Hirsch



We ended the symposium with a “Parting Inspiration” from Glenn North, a poet and the Director of Inclusive Learning and Creative Impact at the Kansas City Museum. He is a poet extraordinaire in my opinion and his ekphrastic poetry is presented alongside some artworks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. One such piece is Lynch Family, a 1946 painting by Joseph Hirsch, which depicts the tragic aftermath of a lynching. See the museum’s website for a more detailed description: https://art.nelson-atkins.org/objects/24036/lynch-family. North’s accompanying poem, called Lynch Family Blues, moved me to tears. You can watch the poet reciting it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q86ggAXvr2U


Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio. Credit: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


The Mia group ended our visit by wandering spellbound through the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I could not take my eyes off their Caravaggio painting, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, with its dramatic contrast of light and shadow and the Saint’s brooding pose. This 1604 masterpiece is one of only a few original works by Caravaggio in American collections. Learn more about the painting here: https://art.nelson-atkins.org/objects/1130/saint-john-the-baptist-in-the-wilderness?ctx=b3c2adcf-c562-4960-a704-9ac66a55f929&idx=1. Visiting the Nelson-Atkins and the surrounding expansive Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park is definitely a must when you go to Kansas City.


Our impressions

Now that we’ve returned home and had time to collect our thoughts, we’d like to offer some take-aways and impressions regarding museums and docent/guide programs:


1. Most museums had a higher-than-usual attrition rate of their docent/guide pool over the past couple of years.

2. Intensive docent/guide training is looking to be a thing of the past due to staffing issues and the need for inclusivity.

3. Many institutions are shifting to guides becoming specialists in a specific area: a geographic region such as Arts of Asia, or a topic such as LGBTQ art or Greek art.

4. Stop and Chat stations or Spotlight single-piece presentations are becoming more popular formats for connecting with visitors compared to the traditional one-hour, multi-object, thematic tour. Traditional tours are not being taught in new docent classes which indicates they will gradually be phased out.

5. Mia is notably ahead of most institutions in the areas of virtual touring and DEIA work.

6. The use of the term “docent” is still alive and well in most museums.

7. Many docent/guide programs get their work done from the bottom up within their institution, from organizing their own training to the scheduling of tours.


Cross-fertilization

New ideas also sprouted up from our experience and joy of meeting and sharing thoughts with guides from a variety of museums across the nation - our brains were on fire! For instance, Anna came up with the beginnings of a great concept: creating an “Art Hosts” program, with guides representing museums in as many cities as possible in North America and possibly beyond. An Art Host would be an ambassador of their respective institution, welcoming fellow guide/docent visitors to the museum and leading tours tailored to the visitor’s interests. The Art Host could choose to include hospitality such as follow-up discussion, dinners or lunches. Stay tuned for developments!


If you have questions or would like to know more about this experience, please ask any of us. I encourage Mia guides to consider attending the next National Docent Symposium, scheduled for November 14-17, 2024 in Atlanta and sponsored by the High Museum of Art. The symposium theme will be “Perfecting your Craft.” If you are interested in attending, speak to Debbi or Kara. For more information about the symposium and the National Docent Symposium Council, check out its website: www.nationaldocents.org You’ll find many additional resources there, including news and updates from the museum guide world, and the Council’s books “Touring with Children and Teens”, and “The Docent Handbook 2”.


Hope to see you at the next symposium!

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