info @ archimuse.com
published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010
The Virtual Docent
E. Berry, Historic Crossroads Village, USA
Docent programs have always presented an administrative challenge to
get the collection of skills, personalities, and individual schedules
to reliably cover program needs. How many of us have wished for a kind
of ideal interpreter, docent, or guide who, like the holographic doctor
in the latest Star Trek series, would always be on standby? In the true
sense of the word virtual, this helper would possess attributes and
capabilities not normally present in the same person. Are we dreaming
to look toward technology to fix for our volunteer predicament?
Museums should take a look at the experiences of other organizations
facing similar problems. There are now business organizations with virtual
capabilities that never would have been thought to be possible a few
years ago (see William H. Davidow and Michael S.Malone, The Virtual
Corporation, New York, Harper Business, 1993). The key to their success
has been the application of computer technology to network capabilities
for a greater effect. Virtual organizations are not new and certainly
not dependant on computer technology to make themselves possible. It
seem as though virtual organizations need technological enhancements
to make their existence practical. Consider, for example, the practicality
any virtual organization operating without access to telephone technology.
The application of the virtual concept to docenting is not science fiction,
but a real possibility for extending the essence of docenting through
the practical use of web page technology.
A Working Definition
Virtual docenting is the networked potential of all docent contributions.
Not many individuals have all the knowledge, skills and abilities to
docent effectively in a web environment. Virtual Docenting is the collaborative
interaction of the World Wide Web resized to work within your organization
and community. Internet connection is not necessarily required, because
the hypertext markup language, out of which web pages are constructed,
will work on local area networks, can be exchanged on floppy disks,
and can be used within the hard drives of shared individual computers.
HTML is modular, like Lego blocks, allowing many hands in the creation
of docent training materials, mentoring arrangements, and web-based
community outreach. Web page docenting transcends time and place limitations
that constrain participation of some docents. Finally, web technology
transports the docent's work into homes and schools that, at least,
have a PC running browser software.
Traditional Docenting in an Electronic Age
Traditional docenting has always possessed virtual qualities. Universities
welcomed these guest lecturers when no one on the faculty could provide
their particular expertise. Art museums could present more of their
collections with flexible docents than with just the curatorial staff.
Today the face to face interaction of docents is still preferred, but
is it still practical as museums move toward more technology? Are docents
needed in the electronic museum? What are the appropriate uses of the
museum/docent format when themes have little physical presence in the
hypertext world of the web? Can electronic docenting provide interactivity
in this new medium? These questions, certainly, require discussion among
museum education professionals and docent groups. The fact remains that
this environment, museums on the web, does need the guidance of trained
docents to navigate its connections and respond in a personalized way
to the questions of the visitor.
A Community of Learners
Since docents are a community of learners, then networking can
be used, potentially, to strengthen those bonds. In any form, docent
programs involve continuous learning and reconfiguring. Maintaining
a trained docent team demands administrative attention, even though
good programs can develop a life of their own in attracting and motivating
their membership. Personal computers have helped relieve some of the
administrative unruliness associated with scheduling contact time and
record keeping, but have not yet been used to network the collaborative
potential of docents. This is of critical importance as social trends
continue to dilute the ability of people to come together for common
purposes. The challenge is in getting our existing docent community
online and to start recruiting a new force of technologically savvy
docents from public at large.
Where to Begin
In nearly ever community there are technological initiatives happening
in the school systems. Classrooms are being networked and teachers are
being trained to use the world wide web. What is missing is enough suitable
content to flow through this educational network. It is natural for
the education community to turn to the museum community for help; after
all, we are in the business of creating meaningful content from our
collections. School districts are willing to commit classrooms and technological
resources to aid cultural organizations in creating new content for
the web. These students, trained in technology by their schools, are
good candidates for becoming virtual docents. They can be teamed with
experienced traditional docents in order that they may instruct each
other in how to best docent in the new medium of the web.
These examples show how technology can extend, rather than replace,
the interpersonal aspect that is basic to docenting. Docenting will
continue to be a hybrid of techniques and resources. At this time, there
are more questions than answers and much experimentation is needed.
At best, web technology can be used as leverage to increase the effectiveness
of our volunteer base and as a means of recruiting the skills and talents
need to take on the challenges to our institutions.
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