GIVING BACK

Undauntable docents

These knowledgeable volunteers bring the Harn Museum to life for visitors young and old alike.


Harn Museum of Art director of education Bonnie Bernau, at right facing, and Harn docent emeritus Deborah Cohen-Crown, far right, discuss artwork by Arnold Meches during a docent meeting in April. Jackie Friel, a Harn Museum docent, explains the paintings on display.

DOUG FINGER/Gainesville Magazine
Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 5, 2005 at 5:25 p.m.

Fifty rain-dampened fifth-graders from Hidden Oaks Elementary enter the clean white lobby of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art on a March morning. Their teachers have already separated them into groups of 10 or so, and each group is vibrating with field trip energy when three docents each assume a group immediately, not wanting to waste any time.

Facts

HOW TO BECOME A DOCENT

The museum will hold its first organizational meeting for those interested in becoming a docent at 10 a.m. Monday, September 26. For more information, contact Brandi Breslin at (392-9826). If you're interested now, you can start following museum tours to get an idea of the docent position. The museum offers public tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

A docent for 11 years, Joseph Huber leads his kids into an exhibit of work by University of Florida faculty members, bringing them just through the doors then stopping them, like Willy Wonka halting his guests at the entrance to the candy room. The gallery is a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.

"I only have one rule," Huber tells them. "The only thing you can touch is the floor."

Naked bodies abound in the artwork. Huber addresses the children's tension over this with gentle tact: "You're going to see a lot of things that may make you giggle. It's all right to giggle. It's all right to be embarrassed," he says, and suddenly, with little fanfare, the kids are primed for the maturity that a museum requires. "OK," he says, "now we're going to walk to Africa." Little ladies and gentlemen, they follow him. "Here we go to Africa," a girl chimes, walking arm-in-arm with two friends.

The ability to facilitate a museum experience for any visitor of any age and knowledge level: That is the job of a Harn docent, and it's a lot harder than it looks.

Docents follow a traffic flow chart, so that they are always in different sections of the museum. Jackie Friel, also a docent for 11 years, navigates past Huber and brings her group to a painting the Hidden Oaks teachers mentioned to their students before anyone even got on the bus.

"You asked before: This is the one with the alarm if you get too close," Friel tells them. "It's by an artist named Claude Monet. Early on in his career, he got a lot of criticism for not being realistic . . . ." Brandy Breslin, coordinator of education at the Harn, defines a docent as "a tour guide and a museum educator." "To docent" means "to teach," she says. "They instill an interest and appreciation of the arts and help raise awareness of the value and meaning of art in people's lives." She explains that docents have autonomy in tailoring their groups' museum experiences. Unless a group is visiting to focus on a particular exhibit, its docent is expected to tour a minimum of three galleries, and explain more than one piece in each gallery. Otherwise, the docent is free to choose the pieces he or she will highlight and then lead the discussion on these pieces by asking questions with more than one or two answers.

Training to be a docent takes about nine months. "We train them not only about the exhibit, but also on how to teach, how to talk to people, structure questions and set up a better group dynamic," says Breslin, who adds that a majority of the docents are retired educators. "A good docent is flexible, knowledgeable about a broad spectrum of things and is interested in other people and able to talk with them," she explains.

The ability to think on one's feet and talk without a script is necessary to be a docent at the Harn.

Though older, more traditional museums offer traditional scripted, lecture-style tours, Breslin says the Harn follows the trend in museum education of offering an open-ended, interactive museum experience.

"It gives the visitor variety," Breslin says. "Visitors can come back to the museum and see different things with a different docent. Because they're all individuals, they have different ideas about different projects. If we narrow a docent down, they're going to narrow the visitor down."

In the Asian wing, Laura Berns, a docent for six years, is talking with the fifth graders about a 13th-century statue of a meditating Buddha. "He's in this position because he's overcoming temptation," she says.

"It looks like you can place a candle on his head," a child observes of Buddha's bun.

"Buddha is often depicted with a large head and a knot on top, which shows you that he has a big brain," Berns explains, then moves onto a 12th-century statue of the Hindu god Vishnu. "He's sculpted to be so much bigger than everyone else around him. Why do you think that is?" she asks. Eager to be picked, children raise their hands and stand on their tip-toes, brimming with suggestions.

It's not easy to become a Harn docent. The museum recruits every other year. Generally, the museum receives 15 to 20 applicants and of that pool the museum will choose about 75 percent. Of that 75 percent, only about half make it through the nine-month training process, Breslin says.

Originally recruited by the Junior League, some of the docents have been with the museum since before the actual building was constructed in 1990. The youngest Harn docent is approximately 40, the oldest roughly 82. There are more women than men. Mostly, they are retired.

The docents also run two nationally recognized community outreach programs. In September, they will attend the National Docents Symposium to speak about the "Tot Time" program, an activity that asks adults to bring their small children (ages 2 to 5) to the museum to interact with the docents and the art on the last Tuesday and first Friday of each month. On the floor, the kids can play with and rearrange laminated segments of a Joel Shapiro painting. They play "itsy bitsy" spider next to a Japanese scroll featuring a spider, or do the Hokey Pokey by a statue of Ganesh. The program has been so popular, it's expanded steadily since Leslie Klein, Suzy Miller, Deirdre Fogler and Mary Furman began it two years ago.

Led by Ros Slater, Susan Woodward and Deborah Cohen-Crown, the docents also run the "Art for Life" senior outreach program, bringing posters and other images of artworks to retirement and nursing homes for those who can't get to the museum. The docents bring pieces that will jog the memories of the viewers, in the hopes that the experience will be both reassuring as well as informative.

The docents give a great amount of their time to the museum and are constantly training and studying. At 9 a.m. one Friday morning in April, the docents gather as a group in the Harn auditorium, tables dressed with coffee and bagels, to listen to artist Arnold Mesches speak about a show he will be exhibiting at the Harn. The Harn says Mesches, "a painter and activist," is known for his "exuberant brushwork, vivid color and collage." The show is called "The Greatest Show on Earth." The museum writes of it: "Personal and political perspectives are expressed in allegories of grand and tragic events that often fuse with spectacle - the carnival, the amusement park, the masquerade or mass media. The subjects of his work include the trial and executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the concentration camps of World War II, the experiences of his Jewish immigrant family, and the political movements of the twentieth century." Mesches describes the pieces in the exhibit to the docents, who take notes in the dim light of the projection screen. Mesches speaks not only about his new show, but about his life and his evolution as an artist.

The docents are gleaming everything they can, because they never know what may be useful when conducting a tour of college students, or third graders, or visiting artists. Maybe Mesches' explanation on selecting images ("A lot of it is searching. A lot of it is intuition.") or his explanation of underpainting or his Euripedes quote ("Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad.") can be used as a talking point during a tour.

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