WE’RE CHANGING HOW WE TOUR VISITORS THROUGH OUR COLLECTIONS
August 16, 2019
By Marion Gajonera, Education Interpretation Manager
How often do you take time to fully experience the objects and images you encounter? To appreciate their richness and consider them in context? According to a 2016 study, the average museum-goer spends 28.63 seconds looking at a work of art – and most of that time is spent taking a selfie.
We encourage you to slow down and look closely – even with wonder - at the objects and images presented throughout the museum. We want you to talk about the complex ideas they represent and to consider the context of each. We want to explore with you how you make meaning with each.
So, if you’ve visited the museum this summer and taken a guided tour, you may have noticed our docents are looking longer at fewer museum objects. You may have discussed with them and fellow visitors some of the complex issues of the North. Maybe a close look at a 49-star American flag on view in the Alaska exhibition sparked conversation about the politically charged process of a territory becoming a state. Or perhaps seeing a case of whalebone tools in a different area of that same exhibition helped you imagine how critical a material whalebone was for early Native hunters in Arctic coastal areas where wood was scarce.
Beginning this summer, we’ve slowed down the pace of our tours – in effect, covering less ground more thoroughly. Our docents facilitate 45-minute tour experiences with a selection of seven objects or less. Tour focus areas range from Alaska Native technologies and innovation to ideas of land stewardship and the Arctic’s changing climate.
Every tour begins with a land acknowledgement to recognize the Eklutna Dena’ina people, the Indigenous inhabitants and stewards of the land upon which the museum is located.
Once inside the galleries, a docent might invite you to look closely at each object and share your thoughts, as you feel comfortable. ‘What do you notice?’ ‘What stories or experiences does this object remind you of?’ ‘What questions does it raise?’ Docents adapt tour content based on participant interests. To guide understanding, docents bring forward relevant research, oral stories, journals and archival photographs.
You are an important part of the tour. What you observe about each object, the questions you ask and the personal experiences you share help everyone on the tour make meaning together. Because each object tells multiple stories and each visitor reflects diverse reactions, no conversation about an object is ever truly the same.
In shifting away from the traditional lecture tour style, docents focus on what the object inspires and evokes while also creating an environment in which visitors learn from each other’s perspectives.
Erica Chenoweth, a docent and Discovery Center science volunteer, begins her tours looking at the live animal collection before focusing on two Alaska Native fishing tools at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. She says, “You can never predict exactly where the conversation might go. I'm always learning new things with this tour format. On one tour, my eyes were opened to the history of Indigenous peoples in Australia. One day, I’m chatting with a mother who participated in U.S. trade negotiations for both the Obama and Trump administrations, and on another with someone who learned Dena’ina from her grandmother near Lake Iliamna. These exchanges occur in addition to the sharing of important facts about the North.”
Together, docents and visitors open up complex networks of information and ideas, see historical and contemporary parallels, and create space to reflect, value, question and share existing knowledge. Adds Chenoweth, “At the Anchorage Museum, the expression and co-existence of differing views and perspectives is commonplace. When participants speak, the tour takes wing and is fueled with an energy even greater than my own. They become in a sense, co-creators of the tour, which is really a thrill.”
Each tour is approximately 45 minutes and begins at 11 a.m., 12 p.m., and 1 p.m. daily through Sept. 2. Tours resume at 6:15 p.m. on Polar Nights, beginning Sept. 13. Tours begin from the Museum Store and are included with admission.
Can’t make it to a docent-tour? Use the 20 Questions Deck to delve deeply about any museum object.
“It’s an ‘a-ha moment’," says Ben Harris, Anchorage Museum docent. "The visitor has connected the dots or seen something with a new perspective. Guiding in this way engages the visitors. It's rewarding for me, and I believe it’s rewarding for museum visitors.”