Museum Tours Don’t Have To Be Pedantic And Boring | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Museum Tours Don’t Have To Be Pedantic And Boring

If you’ve ever been on a tour of an art museum, you’ve probably seen the same thing: A docent, usually an art expert, standing in front of a famous painting and rattling off facts about it. But what if the audience helped guide the tour? Or what if the docent intentionally chose works that aren’t famous?

Morning Shift talks with a couple of tour guides who’ve helped challenge the norms of a traditional museum tour. Nicole Bond is a docent at the Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park, and Tasia Duske is the CEO of Museum Hack, a company that gives rogue tours of museums it’s not affiliated with, including the Art Institute of Chicago.

How the Smart Museum tries to be welcoming

Nicole Bond: We work very hard to make our museum space inclusive. I think for the most part, people tend to think of museums as places that are elitist and predominantly white, and that certain types of people wouldn’t feel welcome in those spaces.

Tony Sarabia: They’re kind of scared of those spaces too, right?

Bond: Absolutely. And with good reason. They’ve never been welcoming, so to speak. And so we work very hard to be inclusive. We open our doors to everyone, we have activities that are for the youngest to the oldest of all races, economic backgrounds, and so forth.

Smart Museum docent Nicole Bond leads a tour group from Taft High School. The tour became interactive as some students shared their research on paintings and photographs from the museum. (Jason Pallas/Smart Museum of Art)

Training for Smart Museum docents

Bond: At the Smart, all of the docents and museum educators go through an ongoing training process. So we do get some of that background, along with the background we come with already about art history and the different works that we have in our collection. But more so than that, we pull on the experiences that we’ve had as people, whether we’re artists or appreciators of art. I’d like to think that any [docent] could come into the museum and look at a collection that’s brand new, and be able to guide that tour, because we’re not talking about it from an art historian perspective, we’re talking about it from a human perspective, a person perspective.

Sarabia: OK, so give me an example of that, a human/person perspective.

Bond: Well, one of my favorite pieces to discuss during my tours is we have an amazing work by artist Kerry James Marshall, we have his painting Slow Dance. And the painting depicts a couple who are in the center of the painting, dancing in a room, and overhead there are musical notes that are painted into the painting….One of the things that I enjoy doing is actually pulling up that song [the couple is dancing to] during my tour, and sometimes my group will break out in a little slow dance!

How traditional museums like the Art Institute react to non-traditional tours

Tasia Duske: Our main response is curiosity. People are wondering what we’re doing on our tours, and what we’re doing to engage the Millennial mindset. So we’ve invited a lot of institutions to come and experience a tour with us. The other part of it is we bring in members that are not already interested in the museum. So we’re getting about fifty percent of people on our tours who’ve never been to a museum before...And every year we give about a quarter of a million dollars to museums in admission costs. So we’re on the same mission as museums: we want to bring more and more people in, and we’re targeting a different audience.

GUESTS: Nicole Bond, docent, Smart Museum of Art

Tasia Duske, CEO, Museum Hack

LEARN MORE: ‘Museum Hack’ tour explores weird areas of Art Institute many visitors miss (Chicago Sun-Times 7/7/18)

Questioning and connecting to art with Smart Museum docent Katherine Davis (South Side Weekly 3/28/18)

Smart Museum website

Museum Hack’s Chicago tours

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