When The Docent Is Just As Storied As The Artifact

Back in November 2018, I wrote about how the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was hiring refugees from Middle Eastern countries to act as docents for galleries of that region. Last week, NPR ran a story on the program which has expanded to include docents from Africa and Mexico & Central American to guide people through those collections .

The program has proven popular with visitors and peer institutions,

Attendance at the Penn Museum has shot up since the Global Guides’ first tours in 2018. A third of its visitors today attend specifically to take a tour with a Global Guide, according to the institution’s internal research, and the program has attracted attention throughout the museum world. Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs, and there’s already one in place at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England.

Something that struck me as valuable to any arts & cultural organization, whether it is a museum or not, was the training these docent received:

The guides received traditional training in archaeology and ancient history. Plus, the museum hired professional storytellers to help the Global Guides lace in personal tales about their lives.

In the quest to make what we do feel more relevant to people in our communities, storytelling is an increasingly valuable skill. I have come to recognize in recent years that while we all have stories which have a powerful resonance for ourselves and others, not everyone is particularly skilled in telling stories. Making storytellers part of staff, volunteer and particularly board training can have some productive results.

Related to that, reading about the museum hiring professional storytellers reminded me of a post I did in 2011 about how the North Carolina Arts Council used folklorists to survey the residents of a county in which they wanted to set up an arts council.

This apparently yielded better results than having a surveying firm canvas the county because the folklorists were able to identify and access niche communities that might normally be missed–especially among those who don’t consider themselves to be artists. So on the flip side, people who are adept at collecting stories may be valuable to surveying efforts.

Folklorists, as it happens, are some of the best trained interviewers out there. They also have a particular advantage when it comes to arts research: folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in all forms, especially that which comes from people who don’t consider themselves “artists.”



P.S. Once again, I have missed my blog’s birthday. It was 16 years old yesterday. At least this time I remembered before Drew McManus wished it a Happy Birthday first. Not that this assuaged the blog’s resentment at having its birthday forgotten once again. You know how it is with teenagers

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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