Friday, May 13, 2011

15 years of being a Docent at the Seattle Art Museum

I became a Docent Laureate today at the Seattle Art Museum, which means that I've been touring there for 15 years. I first started volunteering there in 1992, with my first tour in 1994, but it wasn't really official until 1996, when the African Art Interpreters (which is what I was) were brought into the Docent program at SAM. I had to give a little speech and I thought I would share it here, since it's kinda cool to be a part of so much history at SAM.

Here is an image of my new gold badge that I received, which is so much nicer then the white plastic one I had for 15 years.

"At the very start of our AAI program, various members of the Seattle community were brought in to have a special role in SAM’scope: to teach our visitors about sub-Saharian African art. We were asked to show our visitors that the masks that hung on the walls were used for special occasions, harvest celebrations and remembrances of life cycles.

We were given the daunting task of taking a part of the world that our visitors were not very familiar with and make it personal so they left with a better understanding of our fellow human brothers and sisters.

Our goals for the Interpreter Program given to us in the early 90s were simple:

• To learn about African art and culture
  - as it relates to our collection
  - as a means to contextualize and give history to the objects
  - to de-mystify and reconstruct commonly-held images of Africa
• To learn effective ways of reaching and educating visitors
  - by knowing the visitor (age, ability, interest, assumptions)
  - by engaging the visitor
     - in seeing
     - in appreciating
     - in dialoguing about the art and the issues/experiences it engenders

Easy, right? Well it took us 18 months to do this.

Along the way, we had help with amazing knowledgeable scholars, artists, and writers such as Robert Farris Thomason, James Washington, Jacob Lawrence, Renee Braveman, WonLdy Paye, Gilda Sheppard, Dr. Joy Hardiman, Dr. Clarke Speed and Barbara Thomas.

 It truly was amazing the high level of caliber that museum staff brought to our meetings so that we can learn and share that knowledge with our visitors. I had specialized in African art in college, but to see these speakers in person made me star stuck and excited to be able to learn from them.

And what was the museum getting in return for this venture? An amazing eclectic array of griots.

A griot is an African historian, who delivers history as a poet, praise singer and wandering musician. We were asked to take the oral traditions of objects that consisted of nothing more then wood, bones, nails and cloth and breath life into them so that our visitors can image what they looked like live on a person.

I remember once taking a single cowry shell on a tour with me and letting my visitors touch it and pass it around, and you would have thought they were touching a miracle.

 Here was a single white object, no bigger then a nickel, that was being handled as if it was the Hope Diamond. They were amazed that such a tiny piece of shell was used as currency and that is why it covered the mask I was talking about that hung on the wall.

 I was opening for them the history of the cowry shell in a brand new way.

I would never have enjoyed the looks on the visitor’s faces if it wasn’t for the fact that I took all those months of learning about cross-cultural comparisons of roles, using both the visual and conceptual frame of references, investigating the mythical significance of a piece, participating in systematic activities and asking visitors to describe their perceptions of an object.  (dramatic sigh)

I have since taken these goals with me to traveling exhibits and currently the Olympic Sculpture Park.

I have the AAI program to thank for taking the time to really teach me such valuable lessons, from our original goals and objectives."

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