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UBC Theses and Dissertations

What it means to be a docent : narratives of art gallery experiences Duthie, Lesley


It is widely acknowledged that without volunteer guides, or docents, most museums and galleries would find it impossible to offer education programmes as they are known today. Docents work in the critical interface between visitors and works of art, yet often they are viewed as being passive, and often ineffective, transmitters of the gallery's educational message. The literature on gallery education emphasizes docent "management", or the methods used to recruit, train, and supervise docents. But gallery staff must consider the docent’s beliefs, values, and viewpoints about art, and about education, for improvement of education programmes to occur. This study describes, and analyzes, the docent’s perspective of gallery education programmes, and the extent to which docents are actively engaged in the ongoing process of learning to help others learn. In order to obtain their perspective, six docents in two art galleries were engaged in long, semi-structured, and repeated interviews. These interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Categories derived from the teacher's practical knowledge, such as subject, curriculum, instruction, self, and milieu, were used as a framework to describe and analyze the docent's practical knowledge. It was found that though the docents did indeed hold a coherent body of knowledge that originates in their practice, their theoretical knowledge of art was often an inadequate base on which to build an interpretation of the gallery's exhibitions. Differences were found in the educational goals of the gallery, and between the institution, and the docent’s educational values and purposes. Educators need to be aware or the shifting, complex, and sometimes paradoxical nature of the docent’s role. The docent’s perspective must be considered in the successful planning and implementation of education programmes.

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