Wide Angle

Museums Have a Docent Problem

Inside the struggle to train a mostly white, unpaid tour guide corps to talk about race.

Two photos depicting a man in his home and amongst plants in Nari Ward's Sun Splashed exhibition at ICA Boston.
Installation view of Nari Ward: Sun Splashed at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2017. Photo by John Kennard. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

Palace Shaw was standing in one of the galleries in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art when she heard something that rattled her. It was the summer of 2017, and the show on display was Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, a large retrospective of the Jamaican American artist’s work. Shaw, who had recently graduated from college, was working as a “visitor assistant”—which meant, she says, being a “mediator between the art and the visitor, but also kind of a policing role where I was enforcing museum policy.” She spent long days on her feet watching visitors stream in and out of galleries.

That June day, one of the museum’s volunteer guides was leading a tour of four school-age girls. Three of the girls were Black, says Shaw, and one was South Asian. The girls were asking the guide questions about the art, which included collages, large-scale installations, works made from found objects, and photographs, many of which dealt with racism, identity, and history. “What’s Black Power?” one of the girls inquired. The guide, an older white woman, was clearly struggling to give answers. At one point, Shaw says, she compared Afro-textured hair to different kinds of animal fur. “She knew what she was saying wasn’t quite right. But she didn’t really know how.”

It wasn’t the first time Shaw, who is Black, had witnessed a guide saying something racist, unwittingly or not. So she decided to speak to her supervisor. The response she got, she says, was along the lines of “I hear you, and we can do more training, but there isn’t that much we can do, because it’s a volunteer position.”

Over the past few years, museums have been forced to confront politics at every turn, from legacies of colonialism to the provenance of their funding. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police and subsequent protests, museums have come under renewed fire for their handling of race in exhibitions, on social media, and in the workplace.

Many museums aren’t even open to visitors right now at all due to the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean these tensions aren’t continuing to escalate, especially as institutions chart paths forward in a grim financial landscape and reevaluate their programming. Museums are in the process of confronting how they educate the public about the art on their walls—arguably the most important thing a museum can do, but also a job that often falls to unpaid employees. These volunteers were historically dubbed “docents,” though many museums have abandoned that term. The work a docent job entails varies by institution, but it is often public-facing, and can range from manning an entrance desk to leading student tours. It also tends to skew toward a certain demographic. As one museum education employee who has worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art said, “It’s not totally this, but mostly, it’s an army of privileged old white women.”

According to the museum employees and educators I interviewed, incidents of racial insensitivity and sometimes outright racism involving white volunteers are not uncommon. “I have personally witnessed and overheard very disparaging comments from docents, who don’t even I think realize what it is that they’re saying,” said Porchia Moore, department head and assistant professor of museum studies at the University of Florida and co-creator of the Visitors of Color project. She has also served as an independent consultant for museums including the National Gallery in D.C. and the North Carolina Museum of Art, training staff and volunteers in racial literacy and cultural competency. “There’s some tension between museums and museum professionals who increasingly want to get it right,” she said, “and a docent corps that doesn’t have the language and framework for that.”

Monica Garza, the director of education at the ICA, declined to comment on the specifics of the incident Shaw described, but said, “The entire allegation is super distressing.” “Unequivocally,” she added, “there are no different standards [for volunteers versus staffers].”

Moore advocated for a reimagination of the role of volunteer guides as paid positions, along with hiring more people of color. “Docents are one of the most vital resources for museums, but the current model literally has inequality and exclusions baked into it,” she said, noting the economic privilege inherent to committing to free labor in service of an institution, one that might entail hours of training before the volunteering even starts.

One way to help make the pool of applicants more inclusive would be to turn these positions into paying jobs; many museums, the ICA included, have paid positions who fill some similar roles. Another option is to attract students into the corps by offering credit for courses, as the Getty Museum in L.A. has done. But for most museums, cutting down on unpaid tour guides doesn’t seem feasible, particularly now. “I don’t know any museum in the world that could afford to have their staff do the breadth and depth of the tours that we do,” said Arlene Brickner, chair of the Volunteer Organization at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which may have the largest corps of volunteers of any museum in the United States; as of 2019, the Met had approximately 1,400 volunteers across several departments, of whom 400 lead tours in 11 languages. Hence the question many museums have been asking themselves: How do we better train the volunteers we already have to talk about race?

The onboarding for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts volunteer gallery instructor programs used to mention Thomas Sully’s iconic portrait of George Washington, “The Passage of the Delaware” (1819) once or twice. “It wasn’t insufficient. We had a historian come and talk about it from the perspective of the Battle of Trenton,” said Nicole Claris, who manages gallery teaching and collections training at the MFA. But in 2018, they instead had four different speakers address the painting. First, they discussed the work in the context of early 19th century painting. Then Claris talked about it in the context of portraits of presidents and how Washington was seen in 1819. Then an educator who has written a book on slavery came to talk about a figure in the shadows of the painting: William Lee, whom Washington enslaved. Finally, a student of color who’d worked as a docent came to talk about why and how that context matters.

This approach is part of a volunteer training program that began in the fall of 2018, centered on the museum’s “Art of the Americas” collection. The program uses objects as windows into history: a locked silver box that once contained sugar, for instance, is used to tell a story that’s about silver mining but also about slavery and labor conditions in the Americas. The course is mandatory for all gallery instructors who lead tours of this collection. And since last year—when a class of mostly Black and Latinx seventh grade students was subjected to racist comments from museum staff and patrons, ultimately leading to a formal apology from the MFA—all staff members and volunteers have been required to undergo unconscious bias training.

Garza said that the ICA has also put more educational emphasis into its training program and instituted implicit-bias awareness training.It was several years ago that we began to see the need for more training by outside specialists to help tour guides navigate challenging content and foster dialogue,” Garza said. In the fall of 2017, the museum hired a dedicated person to oversee the training, hiring, and firing of volunteers. Since the museum has been closed due to the coronavirus, Garza said they’ve “continued to work on implicit-bias awareness and have expanded readings and discussions on racism in response to current events with our gallery volunteers.”

Ginnie Hibbard is retired, in her 70s, and has been a volunteer gallery instructor at the MFA for about a decade. During that time, the training has shifted drastically, as has her own understanding of the art. “When I took my first Art in Americas course, it was strictly history and how the MFA American collection reflected that history,” Hibbard, who is white, told me last summer. “I can say this without prejudice: It was the white male historian version worldview that you get in the textbook.”

Hibbard said that the MFA’s new curriculum has changed the way she leads tours and discusses objects, like the museum’s John Singleton Copley portrait of Samuel Adams. “Nine years ago, I would have gotten the kids involved by asking them how he was dressed or what his pose was or his expression,” she said. “It’s age-dependent, of course, but now you can get into civil rights, you can get into different ways of protesting.”

She said the new training has helped prepared her for more challenging discussions. In the museum’s Spanish Colonial gallery, there are a series of “casta” paintings, which portray the detailed racial classifications in colonial Latin America. Los Angeles Times art critic Carolina Miranda has described casta paintings as “decidedly weird territory, displaying an obsession with the races and the ways in which they mix”—but they’re also works that were sent back to Spain as a way of supposedly combating negative stereotypes about interracial marriage. Contextualizing and describing them to a group of 10 kids is difficult, but Hibbard said she now has a clear vision of what she’d do if a young child on her tour asked about them.

“I would not bring up race,” she said. “I would not bring up the differences between people in the paintings, because you’re making the assumption that the kids notice the differences. I would say that they were part of a series that show us what life was like in New Spain. They’re valuable because they show us what people wore, what the plant life was like.” She said she would probably not ask the kids if they had questions. On the other hand, she said, with older kids, she’d go into their history and context. “If I had AP Spanish students who were fluent in Spanish, I’d give them the whole spiel,” she said. “They’re old enough to understand, and they might experience racism in their own lives.”

But even this pedagogical approach isn’t clear-cut. Moore, the racial literacy consultant for museums, takes issue with the choice to omit all racial context in discussing art with young kids. “I would argue that the notion and structure of racial equity and historical thinking are concepts that need to be taught from the earliest age possible,” she said. “In fact, there is no better place to do this than the museum.”

Training is by no means a cure-all, and in recent years some in the museum world—and other workplaces—have come to question its efficacy. Though Moore has trained volunteers herself, she fundamentally believes docents need to be paid if there is any hope of change. “I recently worked with a corps of docents where most people had a winter home and a summer home,” she said. “For most museums around the country, the way the docent program is set up makes that a reality.” Palace Shaw pointed out that people of color often have to sit through training that is largely designed for a white audience. “You have to ask yourself, who is this training really for?”

Many museums are facing an even more existential crisis right now: the question of whether they will be able to reopen at all. But when and if they do, these issues will inevitably become a daily reality again, and perhaps a more pressing one at institutions that—racked by layoffs and financial woes—might rely more than ever on volunteer labor. The ICA, Garza said, is using this moment for a fundamental reimagining of its tour programs. “When we eventually start tours up again, the program will look quite different,” she said. One experiment during the closures has been assigning museum volunteers to a food distribution site that the ICA has been operating out of its seasonal gallery space in East Boston during the pandemic—an attempt at rethinking what a museum’s community role can be and what its volunteerism can look like.

Moore said she is taking some time now to think deeply about the efficacy of training as it relates to docents. “I’m reading a lot of the literature and looking at what the data says about implicit bias, about cultural competence, about racial literacy, about whether you can ‘teach’ someone these things,” she said. “I think that you can, but what I’ve seen is that [museums] make this a one-off thing. They invest in it for a year and they’re like, OK, now we have our shared language and we have our terminology and we’re good.” She said they instead need to envision something more fundamental, a whole structural reimagination of museums that goes well beyond volunteers. “We need to use this time to think about wage equity, hierarchy of the boards, and the systemic and institutional racism in museums,” Moore said.

Shaw also believes that the problems here are much broader and deeper than questions of training. “People trust [museums] so much and trust the education they provide. … People really assume that when they come into a museum, they are encountering a truth of some kind,” she told me. “Mistakes that docents make get folded into that.” She left the ICA in 2018 and now works in media and has hosted a podcast called The Whitest Cube about race and museums. After her time working inside these institutions, she said, “I really don’t believe in museums anymore.”