Docent Dialogue: Learning to Look with Jennifer

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom, whether it’s for a field trip at the art museum or long after graduation day, and the education department at FWMoA is no exception!

Recently, we traveled to Detroit to attend the symposium on the Impact of Art Museum Programs on Students. The National Art Education Association (NAEA) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) collaborated to fund a study on the effects of facilitated single-visit art museum programs on students in grades 4-6. At the symposium we heard findings that supported what we art educators already know: visiting the art museum to see the real thing positively effects students in multiple capacities, from critical and creative thinking to making both human and academic connections. Our museum offers both a facilitated classroom program with reproductions of artworks and a facilitated museum visit with original works of art. This study compared both programs, and because our museum offers both, it was interesting to learn that while students who experienced an in-school art program with reproductions made gains over students who received no art programming, students who visited the art museum were more impacted in the five capacities studied. While these capacities are not mastered in a field trip setting, as an hour is much too short for that, students are able to put these practices into a real world experience that cannot be replicated in a classroom.

Included in the study were best practices for facilitating field trips in ways that promote student capacities. Therefore, we were even more excited to come back to Fort Wayne and share what we learned with our lead museum field trip facilitators: docents! In this docent dialogue Jennifer Vaughn talks about her love of learning and why she thinks trips to the art museum, and seeing art in real life, are important for learners of all ages.

Katy: When and why did you start being a docent?

Jennifer: I started as a docent in 2016. I have always loved art, I love to go to art museums and I enjoy working with children and teens and I thought this would be a good combination. Plus, I get to learn a lot about the art and then I get to share that, which is just a lot of fun!

K: What did you do before you became a docent?

J: I worked as an educator for almost 30 years, primarily at the high school level for the last 20 years. I worked with children with learning disabilities. I worked with students primarily to help them with their reading skills but I also directed high school students towards what they wanted to do beyond high school, a couple of different things.

K: So the majority of our field trip audience is elementary school students. What skills, if any, from teaching did you bring to being a docent?

J: Yes, I most definitely brought skills. I did start out working with elementary school students early on in my career. Working with children or young adults in any capacity helps you to be more comfortable around them. I have no trouble meeting with and communicating with students, it’s very easy for me. But the docent training that we receive definitely helps.

K: What do you think are the benefits of an art museum tour on a student?

J: Probably the biggest benefit is seeing the artwork up close. You can look online and you can look in art books but being right in front of someone’s creation can be much more of a visceral experience. I think it starts to open up their minds and they become even more interested in the art. I think they ask more questions when they are right in front of it, definitely. I think being right in front of it gets their imagination working even more.

K: Does it help you to be in front of something real as a facilitator as well? I know I’ve gone to art museums and seen, for example, the Mona Lisa and expected it to be a large scale painting when it’s really quite small. Have you ever received a docent script with the image and come to the art museum and expected something else?

J: Yes, definitely. I guess I haven’t had that experience at FWMoA but I have had it in other places. I didn’t get exposed to very much art growing up. The town I lived in was much smaller. They had a small art museum so there were attempts made but the very first real experience I had with art was when I went to college. I went to Ball State and they have a beautiful area on the campus where they display art and that was one of my first times and I guess just standing in front of something like that, that a person has created, amazes me. So I was a college student when I first started looking at art.

K: Do you think it makes a difference that we are introducing kids to art a younger age, as someone who saw it first in college?

J: Oh, absolutely, yes. I think, if nothing else, if they are not someone who perhaps wants to pursue any type of art as a career it is only going to enrich their lives. They are going to get exposed to things that they might never see and the earlier you can expose people to that, the better. It keeps their imaginations alive.

K: What is your favorite thing about being a docent?

J: Oh, my goodness that’s hard! Can I choose a few things? Definitely working with the children and watching their expressions and hearing what they have to say. They really are a lot of fun. And the other thing is getting more educated myself, via scripts and watching the other docents. I look at art very differently than I used to. The student’s enthusiasm is catching and sometimes they will see something that I’ve never even thought of and I like that.

K: What has been your best tour experience so far?

J: When the Peter Bremers sculptures were here, Seven Bodies. That to me was just amazing. And I had a groups of first graders who were pretty animated, they were having a lot of fun and were very excited to be here. As we walked into the gallery I prepared them a little bit, I told them it was glass and we needed to be careful and as we walked in one of the little boys raised his hands up in the air and said: This is just beautiful. And I thought, how fun! And he was one that was a little more ornery than some of the others so I didn’t know what to expect from him in a room full of glass and he was just mesmerized as he walked around. He just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. So that was a neat experience, how he responded.

Students stand grouped around their favorite piece of glass from the seven pieces that made up Peter Bremers' exhibition entitled Seven Bodies.
In Peter Bremers’ exhibit, Seven Bodies, students were asked to stand next to the glass work they were most drawn too and talk about why they chose it. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

K: Have you had a negative experience on a tour?

J: I have had very, very few children get out of line. I think the most difficult individuals are the adults. They sometimes don’t understand that don’t touch means everyone doesn’t touch or everyone please stay behind this line. I’ve never left here discouraged or disappointed. I’ve always had a good time.

K: Do you have a favorite exhibit that you’ve seen since you have been a docent?

J: It changes every time a new exhibit goes up! Right now I think Reclamation. It is really intriguing with the three different artists and their approach and their imaginations. I knew who Ben Venom was because I’d seen him on television and I thought it was unique, what he has decided to do, mixing something as domestic as sewing and quilting with the rock band culture. It’s been a lot of fun to have a themed gallery. It is difficult to choose favorites though!

FWMoA Docent Jennifer leads students in a discussion of Ravi Zupa's gun sculptures made out of typewriters.
Jennifer leads a discussion about Ravi Zupa’s typewriter guns in her current favorite exhibition, Reclamation, on display through January 27th, 2019.

K: What is the hardest thing about being a docent?

J: The hardest thing, which is the same as when as I was working in education, was learning to be a listener and not always be talking. As a teacher I would remind myself that I’m a guide, I’m not supposed to sit there and spew all of my hard-won knowledge. I’m supposed to guide the student and help them to find things on their own. So I really work at keeping what I say to a minimum and asking questions and allowing the students to share as much as possible. Getting their reactions versus telling them yours.

K: If you could take a masterclass with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?

J: Well my very very favorite work of art is at the Art Institute of Chicago, A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte. It’s a pointillism piece by Georges Seurat. It’s one of my very favorites and in fact the last time I went, this past September, I always just make a beeline for that room and just stand there and look at it. I think it’s amazing what he was able to do with points of paint. I think it would be something to be allowed to stand with him and maybe take a brush and do something along with him.

K: Our exhibitions change so much! Do you wish you could take a group to that favorite painting here?

J: No, I like the fact that it changes. The Art Institute in Chicago has a purpose and they serve that purpose and they do have exhibitions that change periodically but I think knowing that there is something new coming here is nice. Years ago, I don’t have really strong memories, but years ago we tended to have exhibits that stayed for a really long time and now having the exhibits constantly rotating after several weeks is really good and brings people in. When I share with people that I know in the community I will say oh you must go and see this exhibit because it’s a really great experience, and then people get brought in and say to themselves oh this is a real treasure in our community so let’s keep supporting it and telling others about it. So, I like the rotation. That way I keep coming back!

The rotating exhibits doesn’t make it harder for me as a docent because I like learning about the different things and it’s become so much fun for me to get exposed to everything. It doesn’t mean I really like every single one, but I see parts of it I can appreciate and what the artist is doing and what they had to go through to learn how to create their art and I just have an appreciation for that and it’s really exciting. There have been some exhibits that were a tad boring for me and I’ve had to think about how to get enthusiastic about it but then I would make myself look at one or two pieces and try to figure out what is interesting or likable about it.

K: Any last thoughts on being a docent?

J: It’s a lot of fun and I think that if people are looking for something to do in the community to support the arts and art education they should definitely look into doing something like this.

Want to experience children seeing art for the first time and get involved in your community? Join Jennifer and the rest of the docent corps by contacting Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education, at or by calling 260.422.6467.

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