Behind the Scenes at the DAM

The Denver Art Museum Welcomes a New Group of Tour Guides

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a tour guide at a museum or what a person has to do to become one?

One of the most rewarding parts of my job at the Denver Art Museum is having the opportunity to train and work with tour guides, or as we call them, docents. Training a new class of docents certainly requires a strong commitment from the institution in both staff time and resources as well as a strong commitment from docent mentors and provisional docents (docents in training), yet it’s well worth it in the end since it results in enriching our visitors’ experience.

For our most recent class, training began September 9, 2013. Similar to on the first day of school, this year’s cream-of-the-crop group was excited, a bit nervous, and not entirely sure what to expect. Rumor has it that some of them even found it a bit daunting. I guess I can’t blame them. After all, they were now at the renowned Denver Art Museum with more than 70,000 works of art divided among 10 collections, where we offer more than 15 different types of tours, and serve more than 40,000 students each year. It’s certainly a lot to learn, though, of course provisional docents don’t train for all the tours at once, nor do they learn about all 70,000 works of art. This last year they started with 70 objects. However, after graduation, all DAM docents must keep current with, and participate in, various on-going trainings each year to continue building their repertoire and experience.      

Training topics

Enthusiastic and ready for the challenge, the provisional docents met for three hours every Monday for nine months. Trained by DAM educators, curators, other museum staff, and mentors, the classes covered a wide range of topics, including: how to teach using works of art; how to ask questions that spark visitors’ thoughts and engages them in dialogue about what they’re seeing; understanding and teaching to children and adults with different learning styles; how to create a cultural experience that visitors can relate to. In addition to learning our Visual Skills and Games school tours, the class learned the DAM’s Collection Highlights tours, studying specific objects and art historical content representing most of our collections including Native arts, European and American, and modern and contemporary art. They even got a behind-the-scenes look into the world of DAM conservation.

Mentoring new docents

While it’s critical that our provisional docents learn from experts, they also learn from our experienced docents. As part of the DAM’s new Docent Mentor Program, each of our 11 experienced docent mentors worked with a group of five provisional docents, serving as role models, demonstrating tours, facilitating gallery activities, critiquing provisional docents’ tours, and evaluating written assignments. The mentors were an integral part of the planning and implementation of the training program from beginning to end. In the end, the Docent Mentor Program proved to be a key ingredient in the success of this year’s class and the provisional docents learned priceless tips and tricks that only experienced docents could share such as  successful real life tips in managing a group of young, energetic children, how to efficiently  navigate through two buildings with a total of 11 different floors in a timely fashion, and how to prepare and always be flexible for the unexpected, On June 30, 48 new docents graduated from the program and I couldn’t be more thrilled. The entire museum is excited to welcome them aboard and visitors have already begun to share positive feedback about tours led by our new graduates. Their hard work, dedication, and unwavering passion for being a docent are indeed commendable.

So the next time you’re on a guided DAM tour or see one in action, perhaps this will give you a little more insight as to what it took for the guide to become a docent. Think being a docent sounds pretty cool and want to give it a try? Contact Marie Stanley, coordinator of school and adult tours, mstanley@denverartmuseum.org. And I’m sure if you asked a docent, they would be happy to share more about what they do. 

Jill Orr is the manager of school, teacher, and tour programs in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Jill has been at the DAM since January 2013 and one of her favorite artworks that has been on view here is Bullfight, 1959 by Elaine de Kooning. Some of her first memorable experiences at the DAM were as a graduate intern in the education department in 1998. Recently, Jill served four years as board president of the national Museum Education Roundtable which publishes the Journal of Museum Education