Sunday, September 14, 2014

Was it Ferris Bueller or John Lennon that said that thing about -isms?

"The books on this self pertain to empiricism, and on this shelf, materialism, and on this psychopiscoparalysm." 
-Funny Face
I had two ideas for a novel last year when I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month. The first idea was the one I settled on (The Metro Counselor) but I haven't forgotten about the second idea. It was tentatively called Tourist and it was going to be about a new docent/guide who was learning about the cutthroat world of museum and historical site docents. I have no idea if there is such a world but I thought it would be fun to create one. I even had the first chapter written (in my head). I think that what stopped me from pursuing this idea was creating the worlds of different museums and historical sites. I didn't want to use real places for lots of reasons and I knew that I'd have to create believable sites for the story to work. So I went with the other idea (which worked out well) and called my first NaNoWriMo a success. Tourist currently resides in my head and a little bit on paper (a sketchy outline).

Since last November, I was accepted to a museum docent training program. While not cutthroat, it is one of the most intense learning experiences I've had since graduating from college. I'm a docent in training at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. My class started in June and will finish at the end of October. I began my time at the museum as part of the VEV (Visitor Experience Volunteer) team about a year ago. As much as I love telling people that the Frida Kahlo (the only one in DC!) is on the third floor and that the bathroom is around the corner (there are no signs), it gets a little old after awhile. When the education department announced the next docent class was opening, I applied.

I have no background in art history. I love going to museums and talking about art but didn't take any art history courses in college (theatre majors didn't have to). Most of my art history experience was through research for the productions of The Heidi Chronicles that I've worked on. I knew from my experience as a visitor and in researching volunteer opportunities at museums, that docent programs are very rigorous and can last up to two years depending on the site. NMWA's program is not two years but it's every bit as intense. Assignments consist of art history lectures, readings focused on the visitor experience and the contexts of museums, learning new teaching techniques, and leading on the fly and prepared discussions.

The learning aspect of being a docent is what appeals most to me. Docent comes from the Latin docens which means to teach. Being a docent combines many things that I love all into one: teaching and learning, art, being helpful, volunteering, being in a museum. I also think it's helped renew the feelings I have towards my work life. There's a tremendous amount of overlap between my class and my work. I know a lot about story telling and framing learner needs. I like being able to bring elements of my work into my museum life and vice versa. It's a bit of a validation for me - I am doing what I'm supposed to be doing even if it doesn't always feel like that's the truth.

I was watching an art history lecture on Modernism last weekend. It's a nice blended learning experience since the art history lectures are online. The lecturer (who happens to be one of my teachers) began the lecture by listing all the -isms that make up Modernism. I had to pause the lecture because I was laughing at the list. It was lengthy and some of the words sounded made up. It made me think of the scene early on in Funny Face where poor Audrey Hepburn is rattling off all the -isms in the bookstore while Kay Thompson and Fred Astaire take over for a fashion shoot. I have always believed that Audrey Hepburn just made up some words during this scene as many of the -isms sounded completely nonsensical. An -ism is generally applied to an ideology of some form so I guess it really is made up and could be completely nonsensical if we wanted to get all scholarly here. But I don't so let's move on.

Which brings me back to my idea for Tourist. I could create a fantastical world of museums and historic sites and make up any old -isms I want to (seriously synthetic, analytic, and orphic cubism are real things). While I haven't experienced anything that could be considered cutthroat, there are different camps in the larger museum world when it comes to museum education techniques and visitor experience. This helps to reinforce the image I have in my head of this new docent on her first day. Drama and tension over whether to use VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) or lecture based learning could be a hoot. I'm still not ready to write this story but I know that one day I will. Until then remember, the Frida Kahlo is on the third floor and the restrooms are around the corner.

One of my favorite paintings - Lady in an Evening Dress by Lilla Cabot Perry
The first discussion I had to lead was on this sculpture, Apres la tempete (After the Storm) by Sarah Bernhardt (the actress - yes, she was also a sculptor)
Après la tempête (After the Storm
All photos by me

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