Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse

Written by Andrew Palamara

Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.

Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.

I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.

I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.

Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:

  •     You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
  •     After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
  •     On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?

After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.

There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a  conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).

My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.

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About the Author

andrew-palamaraANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team.


8 thoughts on “Shifting the Focus of Docent Training Toward Social Discourse”

  1. The Cincinnati Art Museum and the people of Cincinnati (as well as the State of Ohio) have long embraced religious diversity, welcoming significant populations of Muslims into Ohio communities including Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Columbus, and Cincinnati (to name just a few). Not only do the collections of major art museums in Ohio embrace Islam in good and beautiful ways, Muslims have been elected to and serve on the Boards of Trustees (Governors); community advisory groups, consulting to special projects, as well as funding preservation and restoration projects in the Islamic collection and period rooms.

    With the only collection of Nabatean art in the U.S., the Cincinnati Art Museum and the community have worked with the Kingdom of Jordan on exhibitions, object research and restoration, cultural heritage protection, and significant sharing of professional research for years. In partnership with the Antiquities Department of the Kingdom of Jordan and the American Museum of Natural History (NYC) the Cincinnati Art Museum conceptualized and spearheaded the extraordinary exhibition – Petra: Lost City of Stone. This exhibition also honored the remarkable work of world-renowned biblical archaeologist Dr. Nelson Glueck (Hebrew Union College) who excavated at Petra and Khirbet et-Tannur.

    In development from 1996-2003, the exhibition professional project staff (both American and Jordanian) worked through times of tension and times of serenity.

    Many school, youth and adult interpretive materials and programs were developed (and may be stored somewhere) – both ancient and contemporary history and issues were presented in unique ways.

    Half of my family is Muslim. We lived in Cincinnati for seven yeas while I served as Division Director of Education and Academic Affairs at the Cincinnati Art Museum. At that time there were CAM docents, trustees and funders from the Muslim community and Islamic traditions.

    I embrace your new efforts and can only trust that there is a deep understanding of foci and terms you use: ” focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world”, “humanizing the religious practices of Muslims”, “talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad”, “In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.”

    There are as many different canons in Islam as there are in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. When working in the Middle East and reading Arabic newspapers I have often seen the American religious right referred to as the American Taliban – so……..

    1. Anne, I’m grateful for your comment. You’ve clearly shown how much the CAM has valued Muslim voices over the years, and it’s laid the groundwork for what we do now. Our Near Eastern and Nabatean galleries will be reinstalled next year, and we’re definitely looking forward to continuing those traditions and facilitating more conversations like the ones we had this past year. Thanks for weighing in!

    1. You’re welcome, Ashleigh! Thanks for the compliments. You hit on some similar ideas in your blog post, too. It’s exciting to know that art isn’t static, and that we can reframe the dialogue around it to include voices that have been diminished. I think you’re on the right track!

  2. As an art museum docent for over 20 years, I have had opportunities to explain Christian iconography, stories, and images to non-Christians or mixed groups of visitors. Although that tradition was integral to my childhood, I am not a practicing Christian. Therefore, I explain those elements as I would any other cultural/mythological/historical concept: with respect and as succinctly and/or factually as possible.

    1. That came up during a couple of the workshops. A few docents might characterize it as Christian art, but several of them said that they didn’t; they referred to it by art historical movement (Renaissance, for example) or by region (Italian, Dutch, etc.). Regardless, it was a good conversation to have in itself. With art that comes from Christian cultures, do we treat it differently because the religion is more mainstream in the U.S.? Do we consider it differently than art from the Islamic world or the Hindu world?

      Ultimately, we reached the conclusion that you came to. As an encyclopedic museum, we have an opportunity to celebrate the unique qualities of several different cultures, and that’s where our focus should be. Kudos to you, Jan!

  3. As a fellow museum employee it is easy to understand the value of preserving art, but this post shows the depth of value art can hold for visitors. Not only does it provide vast historical context but also serves as a platform for conversations about empathy.

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading!

    1. Thanks, Cassie! I totally agree with what you said. I feel even more strongly about artworks like the CAM’s mihrab because they are not the most high profile artworks in the museum. Most people are coming to see van Gogh or Picasso, and some can easily walk by the mihrab without thinking twice about it. But you make a good point about the difference in appreciation between staff/volunteers and the public. Facilitating opportunities for those personal connections is so key. It’s something I discuss with my docents quite a bit.

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