These days, Museum Drip is in the business of considering how to make museums, and specifically art museums, more welcoming to non-art-expert audiences. Sometimes, things that would make museums more welcoming to one group of people will negatively impact another group. Dealing with deeply entrenched docent programs is one of those things. I’ve been writing this blog for over a year and putting off writing about this topic for about 80% of that time. It’s a testy one, folks. This tweet popped up a couple of weeks ago and signaled that it was time to jump into the fray:
The full article is a wild ride and should out to @pablitasan for linking a version that circumvents the Chicago Tribune’s paywall so we can all buckle up and hop on. This opinion piece is completely reactionary. You can almost hear the author sputtering over their words. It’s crafted to do damage to the people that it lashes out against: referring to a new “Art and Activism” tour as “trendy,” and going on to say, “in this case, the clear implication is that such [paid] employees will be more amenable to how some of the lefty cultural apparatchiks at this great museum now insist their works be described.” The author of this particular piece has been kept anonymous at least to non-subscribers of the Tribune, but I’ve seen similar opinion pieces submitted to the local paper by other disgraced and cast out docents – so I think we can fill in the blanks. The article is distressing because it appears to have been written by a former, “fired” docent who thinks art as activism is “trendy,” and thinks that talking about art as something beyond paintings of ships and horses is “lefty.”
This and far more upsetting articles about museum docents seem to be crafted specifically to get our ire up as museum professionals concerned with equity, inclusion and diversity. These two clickbait pieces make sure to point out that docents are often benefactors who “pay” for the positions of the people who “fire” them. Yikes. But if you read between the lines and between the purposefully inflammatory language, there’s more to this situation than “racist old white ladies make museums unwelcoming, getting rid of them solves that problem.”
Here’s the question: are docents bad or are seniors an easy target to function as scapegoats for the institution’s cavalier attitude towards enforcing DEI initiatives and holistic change?
We don’t want to treat any demographic as a monolith – docents are no different. I’ve had plenty of old white ladies say really fucking mean things to me in my career, both in museums and my former life working in a medical office. As a white woman, I’m aware of how privileged I am to have received a different level of abuse than a Black, Indigenous or person of color would in my position. I’ve worked alongside POC in museums who deal with microaggressions from older staff or volunteers/docents on the daily. There are plenty of docents who are mean old racists and their values are completely at odds with what we are fighting for in museums. It IS hard to get rid of problematic, rude and ill-intentioned docents and volunteers. There are plenty of docents who know this all too well, and abuse it, making pivoting to paid positions for more accountability a feasible solution.
But – you knew there was going to be a but, because this is Museum Drip and we like discourse – docents and white people over the age of 60 are still not a monolith. But they are an easy target. We famously don’t respect or even care about elders in America, and as someone who’s experienced quite a bit of ageism on the other side (for appearing “too young”), I am not willing to overlook this ugly aspect of the docent debate. Yes, museums do cater to seniors and privileged folks with their hours, programs, and overall tone. Museums can still do a lot for seniors without unpaid docent programs. However, a lot of the rhetoric about getting rid of docents – maybe more privately than publicly – does revolve often around their age. “They’re of a different time, and that’s why they’re out of touch” – and so on.
The origins of docent programs, like most of the origins of all things art museums, are rooted in privilege, but also in a desire to educate the public. I cited the history of museum education in my last post as told by the book Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Practice. Docent programs, in the US, emerged alongside discussions about whether or not guided experiences were integral to educating the public on art. So here’s another question:
Are docent programs bad or is your institution unwilling to allocate sufficient resources to programs that serve school groups? Last month we talked all things field trips and the Herculean effort it takes to pull them off every single day of the week. Museum education staff will often acknowledge the devil’s bargain of working with docents – they make serving tens of thousands of school children every year possible, but at the cost of dealing with their drama, or worse. But in the post about field trips we also talked at length about how museums fail to recognize the sheer amount of resources it takes to serve hundreds of teachers, children and chaperones each and every day. This feels like a real problem for educators whose institutions won’t budget for paid tour guides. If your institution does make the choice to switch over from a docent model to an employee model, will they support the education staff? Will your institution go from primarily retired, unpaid Type A women who complain loudly when something doesn’t fit their standards to primarily young, likely POC gallery guides who feel quietly mistreated because the institution doesn’t allocate sufficient resources to school tours? Yes, having unpaid volunteers do a huge portion of the heavy lifting of visitor interaction sets a terrible precedent for fair wages in museum work. But what are museums willing to budget for paid guides? And what is the path to upward mobility and promotions for those who take those paid guide jobs hoping to break into the museum world full-time?
Speaking of – are docent programs bad or are you happy with the status quo of your internal culture and reticent to challenging conversations? The rude Chicago Tribune article aggressively rails against how much work it was for docents to relearn how to talk about artwork in the “trendy,” leftist way that telling the real story of art history necessitates. We don’t want people with that opinion giving tours. Sure. But another ugly truth beneath this conversation is the idea that we can close ourselves into a bubble of like-minded folks in order to do good museum work. I like to maintain a chaotic energy on Museum Drip and toss out potentially unpopular opinions from time to time because I am unnerved by the hive mind on museum Twitter and Instagram. Whether differing opinions are harmful or not – people still have them. Being exposed to different perspectives/experiences has helped me in my work. Working with docents who actually grew up with racist depictions of Indigenous people in movies and TV completely reframed the way I learned to educate people over a certain age about representations of Native people in art. I would not have understood how to communicate with people who have experience in a completely different zeitgeist than me without working with them directly.
But what about when docents actually are bad people who cause harm to visitors and staff? Well, are docent programs bad or does your institution have no standards for accepting donations and funds? The two rude articles in the Tribune and the Phoenix News Times are explicit about the docents who were “fired” “paying” for the salaries of the people who let them go. This is nasty entitlement and also, completely misguided. It’s not even how museum finance works, but we’re not even going there right now. But how much of this is just another instance of museums deferring constantly to money and failing to advance the way they think about fundraising? I know very well this is easier said than done – but museums need to let go of putting funding before priorities. If a donor wants to be a volunteer and they don’t serve your mission, cut them off. Goodbye to you. Likewise, some of these circumstances seem to fall squarely on the shoulders of newly appointed museum directors or directors of education without public institutional support from the board or administration. A friend of mine pointed out that the show The Chair, which you know resonated hard with us all, hit this one hard:
In conclusion, I am not here to defend unpaid docent programs – but I am here in defense of the docents. For as many docents as have behaved badly, I can name 10 more that have supported me, ferociously supported DEI initiatives and conducted important research on artworks to craft more culturally aware and appropriate tours, made me unafraid to age and helped me feel excited for all the seasons of life, helped me to better connect with visitors of all ages, and gave me context for exhibitions because of their lived experiences. Of course, every institution is different, but I would guess that 10/10 times, the behavior of your docent corps reflects the behavior of museum leadership, so consider that before we throw that Van Gogh baby out with the bathwater.
In discussing this topic with other museum people, there are tons of great solutions to engaging seniors while shifting to a more equitable tour guide model. There’s no reason why we can’t interview and pay all museum guides. I know plenty of retired folks who are still looking for part-time income, and paying retired people a part-time wage is a heck of a lot more equitable than offering those jobs only to emerging museum professionals who have student loans to pay – let’s focus on getting those folks full-time jobs, yeah? Another museum friend suggesting pairing senior volunteers with gallery guides/security officers to empower those front-line staff members with presumably less free time on their hands for conducting research to interact with visitors. Retired people with decades of life experience can be a rich part of the museum professional tapestry – let’s work together towards an equitable museum future that includes them.