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How museum guides are being enlisted in the US culture wars

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I have covered a lot of touchy subjects during my time as an arts journalist: sexual harassment, conflicts of interest, money laundering. Few have provoked as much discomfort as the subject of this column. And that subject is… docents: volunteer educators who guide visitors through museums.

Back in autumn 2021, docents became a proxy for the culture war ripping through the United States when the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) announced it would suspend its docent programme in favour of paid educators. The goal, docents were told in a letter, was to enable “community members of all income levels to participate” and “respond to issues of class and income equity”.

It set off a firestorm. Docents were furious at what they saw as their unceremonious dismissal. Conservative media labelled the move, which targeted a majority white and female docent corps, a clear case of “reverse racism”.

What you probably did not hear, however, is how the story ended. The AIC’s director of education, Veronica Stein, who had spearheaded the overhaul, left the museum in April 2022, one year after she joined. (She did declined to comment on her time there.) Although the museum had originally planned to reinstate volunteers in 2023, after implementing the paid programme, it accelerated the process, reintroducing both in autumn 2022. (A spokesperson said the museum moved up the timeline to accommodate post-pandemic demand.) Today, there are 60 volunteers from the original docent corps while 40 new ones are due to join later this year. A team of 16 paid educators handles all official school tours.

It is not hard to understand why docents are a touchy subject. (Notably, many institutions have stopped using the word—derived from docere, Latin for “to teach”—which in some quarters calls to mind images of out-of-touch “ladies who lunch”, opting instead for terms like “volunteer educator” or “volunteer guide”.) They are often the first point of contact at institutions trying extremely hard to change the face they present to the world—to make it younger, less white, less elitist and more engaged with contemporary life. Docents, on the other hand, are predominantly white, of retirement age and upper-middle class. They embody the tensions between the status quo and change playing out at legacy institutions across the country.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that these issues are new. Back in 2005, a similar fracas broke out at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. The museum sent docents a letter informing them that all tours would be put on pause while it overhauled the programme. And, just like today, the decision coincided with a broader paradigm shift, as museums began to prioritise the visitor over the object. For docents, that meant a sometimes-challenging transition away from lecture-based tours and towards a more interactive approach. But the blowback against the docents’ dismissal at the NGA was so strong that the museum swiftly reversed itself. The then-director even issued an apology for the “misunderstanding”.

Comprehensive retraining

Other museums have since followed through with ending their docent programmes, including the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, in 2014 and, more recently, Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Another increasingly common approach—adopted by the AIC, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) and others—is to place school tours under the auspices of paid staff and offer docents a more limited purview, like leading special exhibition tours or assembling materials for teachers.

“We looked at the pros and cons, and decided it was in the museum’s best interest to retain our docents, but we had to make it work for us,” says Sheila Pressley, FAMSF’s director of education. Every docent had to go through a comprehensive retraining, including mandatory equity training. “It has been very difficult for a lot of docents,” Pressley says. “We have had some attrition.”

At the same time, FAMSF launched programmes designed to attract a younger, more diverse guide pool. (When the museum hosted the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 in 2019, only two of its roughly 200 docents were Black, Pressley says.) Today, volunteers can sign on to give tours of four objects that fit under a specific theme. Unlike docents, who train for two years, these new gallery guides take an eight-week course.

As museums increasingly present the work of artists who deal explicitly with race and politics, clear boundaries and specialised training are paramount, says Porchia Moore, a museum studies professor at the University of Florida. Otherwise, “you have people taking children to look at a piece of artwork that has extreme racial implications, but they choose not to talk about race, or are uncomfortable talking about race”, she says. “They might avoid the work altogether, avoid questions about race or have no understanding of the historical context. That becomes an issue for the museum.”

Private museums like the Broad in Los Angeles and Glenstone in Maryland—with more financial resources than public institutions—have chosen to forego volunteer docents altogether. Glenstone pays its 50 guides (who range in age from early 20s to mid-80s) more than $20 per hour. Their focus is on engaging the visitor in meaningful conversation rather than delivering talking points. “It’s important for guides to have humility, to feel that they can learn from the visitor,” says Michelle Clair, Glenstone’s senior manager of visitor experience. “You also have to be a people person. It helps when someone has been a server or worked the customer-service desk at an airport.”

It is unclear if docents will have a place in the museums of the future. Running parallel to the debate about how best to greet visitors is one about how museums treat and compensate their workers as more employees unionise. Twenty years from now, reliance on unpaid labour of any kind may seem backwards and antiquated. But, for the time being, FAMSF’s Pressley is confident that plenty of committed docents will survive, and even thrive, amid the industry’s overhaul. “Docents are lifelong learners,” she says. “So if you are able to phrase it as, ‘This is the newest, most interesting and exciting chapter of art history,’ they are on board. Docents don’t want to be telling old stories when there are new stories to tell.”

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