Posted on August 21, 2020

Museums Have a Docent Problem

Sophie Haigney, Slate, August 18, 2020

Palace Shaw was standing in one of the galleries in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art when she heard something that rattled her. It was the summer of 2017, and the show on display was Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, a large retrospective of the Jamaican American artist’s work. Shaw, who had recently graduated from college, was working as a “visitor assistant”—which meant, she says, being a “mediator between the art and the visitor, but also kind of a policing role where I was enforcing museum policy.” {snip}

That June day, one of the museum’s volunteer guides was leading a tour of four school-age girls. Three of the girls were Black, says Shaw, and one was South Asian. The girls were asking the guide questions about the art, which included collages, large-scale installations, works made from found objects, and photographs, many of which dealt with racism, identity, and history. “What’s Black Power?” one of the girls inquired. The guide, an older white woman, was clearly struggling to give answers. At one point, Shaw says, she compared Afro-textured hair to different kinds of animal fur. “She knew what she was saying wasn’t quite right. But she didn’t really know how.”

It wasn’t the first time Shawwho is Black, had witnessed a guide saying something racist, unwittingly or not. So she decided to speak to her supervisor. The response she got, she says, was along the lines of “I hear you, and we can do more training, but there isn’t that much we can do, because it’s a volunteer position.”

Over the past few years, museums have been forced to confront politics at every turn, from legacies of colonialism to the provenance of their funding. {snip}

Many museums aren’t even open to visitors right now at all due to the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean these tensions aren’t continuing to escalate, especially as institutions chart paths forward in a grim financial landscape and reevaluate their programming. Museums are in the process of confronting how they educate the public about the art on their walls—arguably the most important thing a museum can do, but also a job that often falls to unpaid employees. These volunteers were historically dubbed “docents,” though many museums have abandoned that term. The work a docent job entails varies by institution, but it is often public-facing, and can range from manning an entrance desk to leading student tours. It also tends to skew toward a certain demographic. As one museum education employee who has worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art said, “It’s not totally this, but mostly, it’s an army of privileged old white women.”

According to the museum employees and educators I interviewed, incidents of racial insensitivity and sometimes outright racism involving white volunteers are not uncommon. “I have personally witnessed and overheard very disparaging comments from docents, who don’t even I think realize what it is that they’re saying,” said Porchia Moore, department head and assistant professor of museum studies at the University of Florida and co-creator of the Visitors of Color project. She has also served as an independent consultant for museums including the National Gallery in D.C. and the North Carolina Museum of Art, training staff and volunteers in racial literacy and cultural competency. “There’s some tension between museums and museum professionals who increasingly want to get it right,” she said, “and a docent corps that doesn’t have the language and framework for that.”

Monica Garza, the director of education at the ICA, declined to comment on the specifics of the incident Shaw described, but said, “The entire allegation is super distressing.” “Unequivocally,” she added, “there are no different standards [for volunteers versus staffers].”

Moore advocated for a reimagination of the role of volunteer guides as paid positions, along with hiring more people of color. “Docents are one of the most vital resources for museums, but the current model literally has inequality and exclusions baked into it,” she said, noting the economic privilege inherent to committing to free labor in service of an institution, one that might entail hours of training before the volunteering even starts.

One way to help make the pool of applicants more inclusive would be to turn these positions into paying jobs; many museums, the ICA included, have paid positions who fill some similar roles. Another option is to attract students into the corps by offering credit for courses, as the Getty Museum in L.A. has done. But for most museums, cutting down on unpaid tour guides doesn’t seem feasible, particularly now. “I don’t know any museum in the world that could afford to have their staff do the breadth and depth of the tours that we do,” said Arlene Brickner, chair of the Volunteer Organization at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which may have the largest corps of volunteers of any museum in the United States; as of 2019, the Met had approximately 1,400 volunteers across several departments, of whom 400 lead tours in 11 languages. Hence the question many museums have been asking themselves: How do we better train the volunteers we already have to talk about race?

The onboarding for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts volunteer gallery instructor programs used to mention Thomas Sully’s iconic portrait of George Washington, “The Passage of the Delaware” (1819) once or twice. “It wasn’t insufficient. We had a historian come and talk about it from the perspective of the Battle of Trenton,” said Nicole Claris, who manages gallery teaching and collections training at the MFA. But in 2018, they instead had four different speakers address the painting. First, they discussed the work in the context of early 19th century painting. Then Claris talked about it in the context of portraits of presidents and how Washington was seen in 1819. Then an educator who has written a book on slavery came to talk about a figure in the shadows of the painting: William Lee, whom Washington enslaved. Finally, a student of color who’d worked as a docent came to talk about why and how that context matters.

This approach is part of a volunteer training program that began in the fall of 2018, centered on the museum’s “Art of the Americas” collection. The program uses objects as windows into history: a locked silver box that once contained sugar, for instance, is used to tell a story that’s about silver mining but also about slavery and labor conditions in the Americas. The course is mandatory for all gallery instructors who lead tours of this collectionAnd since last year—when a class of mostly Black and Latinx seventh grade students was subjected to racist comments from museum staff and patrons, ultimately leading to a formal apology from the MFA—all staff members and volunteers have been required to undergo unconscious bias training.