Survey of Arts Management

Course blog for American University PERF-570, Fall 2014

Woman, old, vest

The Hirshhorn announced last week that it would be disbanding their longstanding docent program.

The need and use of volunteers and docents within museums is tricky. On the one hand, it’s valuable to have a group of people who work without pay, who are also passionate about the art on display and willing to engage with visitors. On the other hand, managing such a team requires a lot of time and non-monetary resources, and it’s hard to deny that there is a shift in museums away from a traditionally led docent tour to a more formal conversation based model. So how to you make this switch gracefully and unoffensively? Clearly the Hirshhorn hasn’t quite figured that part out.

I think the article strays a bit in it’s assertion that the museum is robbing the docent’s of one of their greatest pleasures. Yes, the Hirshhorn was harsh in the way they suddenly let them go, but in the end the museum is a business and needs to be run in a way that follows its best interests in that sense. What interests me is the suggestion that the older docents are being phased out in favor of younger people who are looking to gain experience and start a career in the art world. I agree that this new sort of role provides a valuable opportunity for recent grads looking to get a start in the museum field, but I don’t see why that same opportunity couldn’t be extended to the already existing docents.

I once read a study on museum education which featured a summary of a word association test they’d given to a random selection of museum goers. The three words highlighted for Docent were “woman,” “old,” and “vest” (…to be fair I have certainly encountered my fair share of vest-wearing elderly lady docents in my experience in museums). It’s not that I think the Hirshhorn is wrong in trying to break this stereotype, and I do think that new type of docent model is needed, one that is more dialogue and inquiry based than lecture based. But I do think there is a way to include this new model into the old in a way that respects the longstanding docents and also welcomes new ones.

It is also worth scrolling down to the bottom of the article to see other readers’ comments on the decision – they have some very interested and eloquent thoughts about it!

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One comment on “Woman, old, vest

  1. lcrowley2014
    November 21, 2014

    Thanks for posting this! It’s such a touchy subject. On the one hand, volunteer docents are an asset to the museum. On the other, they are an asset that takes management, training, oversight, scheduling, coordination, hand holding, appreciation, etc, etc. I understand the frustration, we have a volunteer program where I work and it can be a lot of extra work for the small staff. But then again, these woman (and one man!) have been here far longer than I have and are our #1 cheerleaders, I can imagine giving them the boot. If I were at the Hirshhorn, I wouldn’t have fired the volunteers. I would stop growing the volunteer program and at the same time develop the Gallery Guides. It would mean more work but it would be worth it (volunteers=donors). Plus, they could use some of the young hot talent from the college age gallery guides to help manage the volunteer program.

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