By Erik Greenberg
For some 15 years, now, I have been fortunate to work for the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, a museum dedicated to the history and culture of the American West. For the past five years I have been its director of education and visitor engagement. One critical aspect of our department’s work concerns our face-to-face engagement with museum visitors (some 150,000 of them a year, including about 50,000 K–12 students). While my staff does not work with every visitor, it is safe to say that we engage with well over half of our annual audience. I am aided in this work by a small staff of paid museum educators (mostly current history majors, prospective teachers, and recent graduates) and approximately 150 volunteer docents. Because we spend most weekdays in the school year touring our K–12 visitors, we don’t have much time for training new staff from the fall through the spring, and for this reason, summer is the season when we hold our new docent training class.
Though only 10% of my annual workload, during the summer I probably give about a third of my time to docent training. I typically spend 10 to 12 summer afternoons welcoming prospective docents, touring them through the museum, lecturing to them on significant topics, discussing their assigned readings, overseeing the participation of numerous staff members and invited guests, assessing our trainees’ touring skills, easing their concerns, and reassuring them that they will get better with practice. In some ways it’s like teaching an odd hybrid of a survey and a seminar.
Despite some similarities, though, docent training is its own unique learning experience, one that depends a great deal on in-gallery exposure and ongoing practicum work. Out of some 36 hours of training listed on our syllabus, we offer only four hours of traditional “classroom” teaching. The remainder of our work takes place on our feet (or portable stools) inside the museum galleries. After all, our primary goals are to familiarize trainees with our galleries, provide context and detail to our permanent exhibitions, and teach and foster great communication skills.
We accomplish these goals in a variety of ways, but one of our more consistent practices is the curatorial walkthrough. Over a four-week period, our curators tour trainees through our permanent galleries, teaching them about substantive themes and focusing in-depth attention on a few objects per space. This focus on depth over breadth is a relatively new development, one I introduced when I took over the department and the program. In the past, curators were called upon to provide an encyclopedic description of practically every object in every case. This practice was a remnant of a time when docent training lasted for nine months—something the museum eliminated years ago in the interest of making the training more appealing (and likely more cost effective, as well). After observing the program, I realized that any attempt to discuss fully all objects in a space, and to expect any significant retention from our students, was a Sisyphean task. Just like becoming a great classroom teacher, becoming a great docent is an ongoing process of practice and continuing education. I believe it is best to send new docents into the field (so to speak) with a few solid tools in their toolkits and help them build their knowledge over time through observation, mentorships, and ongoing training. Indeed, this year, for the first time, we will require the current class of trainees to do a quarterly follow-up program to advance their knowledge, assess their skills, and build their confidence.
Our trainees also spend a fair amount of time learning how to teach. By week three we expect each of them to speak for one to three minutes to a small group of staff and veteran docent mentors about one object in the museum. To be sure, at this point in their training, our charges know very little about our artifacts or the museum. The purpose of this exercise is not to test them on what they know, but, rather, to help them become more comfortable communicating with a small audience. Presentations are followed by constructive feedback, and by the end of the program (as a kind of final exam, if you will) docent trainees tour some six to ten objects across the museum. Throughout the program our charges receive constructive and supportive feedback from museum staff and a team of veteran docent mentors.
That support is key to docent training. Throughout the program, we try to create a supportive environment, one in which our trainees feel free to ask questions, try out new ideas, and even fail. To create that ethos requires a tremendous commitment of time. In order to feel comfortable around me and others on my staff, our trainees need to see me and my staff as their biggest fans. And that kind of support requires that we be present for them at all times throughout the training. I attend most classes (even the ones I am not teaching). I read all of their assigned readings along with them rather than depending on my having read many of the same texts for five years. I chat with trainees in our classes, on breaks, and frequently by e-mail. And many of my staff dedicate as much if not more time to the program. It can be exhausting, and it certainly makes summer a very busy time of year for us, but I love it, and look forward to it every year.
Erik Greenberg is the director of education and visitor engagement at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. He received his PhD in history from the University of California, Los Angeles and also holds MAs in history from UCLA and California State University, Northridge. He has been involved in the work of museums and public history for over 15 years.