Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. Here, Christina analyzes a tour at the MFA for the Tufts course Teaching and Learning in the Museum.
In November, I took a docent-led tour of the Art of Europe wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The tour was aimed at providing the participants with a broad range of examples of European art, from medieval to early 20th century. While the experience was not wholly unsuccessful, there were two major issues with the tour. There was a clear lack of engagement between the tour guide and the visitors and, because of that, the tour did not necessarily live up to the MFA’s “ultimate aim” of their mission statement: to “encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation of the visual world.”
The first thing I noticed about my tour was that, because we were never asked about ourselves, we were (presumably unintentionally) being told that although we were not important, what was important was our guide asserting her authority by telling us how long she had worked there and how much she knew about the art. By the way our guide described the works of art and the fact that she never welcomed questions, the tour felt as if it was made for people who already knew about European art or at least had a very strong interest in it. This may have felt exclusionary for some people, and in fact one visitor dropped off the tour a few stops in. Our tour guide also walked quickly between works of art that sometimes spanned long and confusing stretches of the museum without once looking back to make sure that her tour was keeping up with her or even that we were all with her when she began speaking about the next piece. Because our guide did not take into consideration all the different aspects of our experiences and because we as learners were not finding new ideas or constructing knowledge on our own, I would argue that making any meaning at all out of this experience would have been very difficult. And while the MFA’s mission statement states that “the Museum’s ultimate aim is to encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation of the visual world,” I believe that because she never checked in with us to see how her efforts were paying off, it would be hard to tell whether she was successful.
While reflecting on my tour experience at the MFA, I thought of the Visitor’s Bill of Rights written by Judy Rand, director of Rand and Associates. There appeared to me to be a few rights that could have been addressed more clearly to yield an improved experience. The first was the right to feel welcomed. Our tour guide could have made us feel more welcome asking us at the very least who we were, but more importantly by engaging in dialogue with us along the way and also making sure that we were keeping up with her physically and intellectually as well. The second right was the right to communication. Communication is a key part of learning and meaning making in museums, so our guide could have made us more comfortable by making sure that we understood what she was saying and why it was relevant, as well as welcoming questions from the start of the tour. The third right the right to choice and control. A certain amount of control could have been ceded to us by our tour guide engaging us with more open-ended questions to facilitate an organic discussion between us.
Although I do not think I learned as much as I could have through the didactic model of teaching, it does work for some learners and I did not walk away having learned nothing from the Art of Europe tour at the MFA. If I was to summarize all of my thoughts, I would do so by quoting Rika Burnham, who at one time was in a very similar situation as our tour guide while conducting one of her run-of-the-mill tours at the Met. Burnham realized that, because visitors were not able to engage with the art through the didactic style of teaching she had employed, she needed to “stop lecturing and begin listening” to her visitors while at the same creating a safe space for them to “question, search, challenge, be moved by, and ultimately bring the work into the context of their own lives without being intimidated or made to feel inadequate.”