But will YOU be here? An argument for tours that encourage life-long museum-going

This is the fifth guest post in the Schools and Museums series. Jackie Delamatre has been a museum educator for over a decade. Until this fall, she was an educator at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She recently moved to Providence, RI where she is an educator at the RISD Museum. She also writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim and the International Center of Photography.

My own comments are in italics at the end of the post.


Jackie Delamatre

Imagine a school trip to a library. Students are ushered in, told the rules, and then read three pre-selected books. Any questions unrelated to those books are answered perfunctorily. It is made clear that the focus should be on those three books rather than the library as a whole. The books are all related (perhaps only tangentially) to what students are learning in school.

Does this seem like a successful library trip?

Students have not learned what a library can be for them, how they can use a library, or how they could approach the space on a return visit. Students have not experienced the joy, surprise, and discovery of looking for and checking out a book that appeals to and interests them. No one has even modeled how to do this. Libraries, for them, are now places where people read them books and conduct conversations in a group about the books. Why return? The experience cannot be replicated on their own.

Candida Hofer, Trinity College Library

Candida Höfer, Trinity College Library Dublin I, 2004


In a typical art museum tour, students, brimming with excitement, enter this new and unusual space. Many have never set foot in an art museum before. Many have never even seen an artwork up close. The space itself raises hundreds of questions for them:

Where do you get these artworks? How do you get them in here? How do you hang them? What would happen if I touched an artwork? What did the artists use to make them? How long did it take to make? Are they real? Is that the frame the artist chose? How much do these cost? Why is this considered art when I could do this myself? Can I go to the gift shop? When and where do we eat? When can I go to the bathroom? If I came back, would you (the educator) be here?

Many of these questions go unanswered. But what if we refocused? What if the primary goal of a museum visit were to foster an understanding of, appreciation for, and techniques for being future visitors in a museum?

Why are we replicating the teacher-directed nature of most classrooms in informal learning institutions?

What if we left space, and designed lessons, in order to foster the natural questions that students bring to the museum?

Many museums place curricular connections high on their list of goals for school visits. We worry that teachers need to justify their field trips to administrators by citing these connections. I have talked to hundreds of teachers before their school visits and in my experience, the majority of teachers do not want or need to shoehorn a connection to their curriculum into the visit. Instead, they most often cite the desire for their students to be “exposed” to the museum. On the face of it, “exposure” sounds quite shallow. I imagine flipping a slide on for a couple seconds and saying how happy I am I have “exposed” students to that artwork. But, in truth, I think teachers hope that their students will visit the museum and see that it is a welcoming, accessible space that they can return to independently or with friends or family, a space that they now have the tools to explore with or without guides, a space where they can contemplate not just art but their lives, history, spirituality, community, social justice, and political issues, to name just a few.

But how will students ever feel they can return on their own if our lessons are so educator-directed? So often, at the end of a tour, I have encouraged a student to come visit again and they have turned to me and said: But will you be here? I’d like to think this was because they liked me, but instead, I think it is because the way we lead school tours makes students feel as if they can only visit a museum with a guide. I believe there is a place for educator-directed group conversations on a tour because I think that is one way to help students see how much they can observe and interpret without extensive knowledge of art history. But why are we focusing so much on this one tool?  And why is the primary tool we are using something that cannot be replicated upon return?

What if our primary goal were to encourage students to be life-long visitors? How would that affect our tour design? Perhaps students would be brought into a gallery space, asked to find an artwork they are attracted to, and given one of the following informal learning challenges:

  • Tell a friend why you like or dislike it, or write about why you have this opinion.
  • Tell a friend what you notice about it, or own your own list words to describe it.
  • Sketch the artwork or free-write about it.
  • Let the object launch you into a creative response (i.e. a monologue from the perspective of one of its subjects, a drawing of a more contemporary take on the image).
  • Ask “what if” questions about it (i.e. what if it was a different color or palette, what if it were in a contemporary setting) and talk to a friend about the possible answers.
  • Ask questions about the work to yourself, a friend, or a small group.
  • Read the label and think about which questions it answered for you and which questions still remain. Think about how you can find answers to these questions.

Or perhaps students would be allowed to explore an exhibition or the entire museum on their own and asked to ponder it in these ways:

  • Write as many questions down as you can think of, share them in a small group, pick your group’s most pressing question and ask it of the whole school group
  • Wonder about an exhibition and how it was organized. Wonder about the curatorial choices. Which choices would you have made differently? Debate these choices with a friend.
  • Think about what makes you comfortable here and what creates discomfort. Design a change for the galleries that would increase your comfort.
  • Think about museum roles such as curator, conservator, or exhibition designer. Give students descriptions of these museum roles and ask them to write questions for each person.

Certainly, many of these techniques are already built into the best guided museum tours, but what if they were given more importance? All of these activities involve free choice. They involve independent looking, or looking in pairs or with small groups. They are general techniques, applicable to most objects and museums. They can be replicated independently upon a return to the museum, helping students see that they don’t need us to be there to have a fulfilling experience in the museum.

I am not proposing throwing out educator-directed moments or visual literacy as a tour goal. Instead, I imagine – as one possibility – a tour in which students are given one of the above prompts when they enter the museum. They can work in pairs or independently. Then the group comes together and discusses the experience. What did they discover? What other questions or thoughts did the experience bring up? Next, the group might look together at one artwork in order for students to see how a group conversation can go from observation to interpretation and bring to light so much about an artwork that independent looking alone might leave dark. Next, the group is dispersed again, this time with a choice of independent or pair activities before a final reflection as a larger group. Some students might choose a creative response, others judgment, others pure observation. Or, perhaps, like a Montessori classroom, different activities like this would be set up across the museum for students to choose from. Either way, through these student-directed moments, all will have an experience guided by their own interests and one they could apply on a return trip.

Panini - Picture Gallery


Over the past decade, based on teaching hundreds of tours, I have come to believe that certain age groups pose categories of questions. Fourth through sixth graders ask questions about how the museum functions. High school students want to know why something is considered worthy as art and worthy of space in the museum. Understanding these natural, developmentally-specific questions could help us as we design museum experiences for each age.

With this in mind, I propose a call for collaborative action research. Any museum educator who is reading can help – even if you just see one school group in the next few months. Before you have even started your tour, ask your students what questions they have. Write them down along with the group grade level. Share them in the comments to this blog post, or email them to me at jdelamatre–at–gmail.com.

I will compile and analyze the questions. Check back here in a few months for the results. And while you’re at it, look at the questions you have collected and think about how these natural questions might dictate a new approach to school visits – one more consistent with students’ interests. I can’t wait to hear your ideas.

I love this call for collaborative action. So often we think of research as expensive, or intimidating. What Jackie is suggesting is so simple – ask the kids a question, and collect the answers. I hope that many readers will email her about participating.

I also want to call attention to the way in which Jackie is aligning goals and strategies. If we want tours to accomplish X, we must do Y. How much more interesting it is to be intentional about those goals, and creative about how to accomplish them, than to struggle to teach to goals that we are not as committed to! If you have alternate tour strategies that you think would help kids become life-long museum visitors, please share them in the comments below.


30 thoughts on “But will YOU be here? An argument for tours that encourage life-long museum-going

  1. Thank you, Jackie and Rebecca for this refreshing thinking about not only field trips but also learning in museums. It’s a significant shift from the teacher-directed, curricular model of classroom learning (so dominant we replicate it without knowing we are doing so) and focuses on the untapped potential of informal, learner-centered environments. The invitation to collaborative action research is a great start in rethinking field trips.

  2. Thank you for this post. Recently I have found myself giving adult public tours where I focus on “what can you do when I’m not here?” But I haven’t really reflected on how to do that with our K-12 tours…which is perhaps even more important. Really great stuff to think about!

  3. Thanks, Jeanne and Becky, for sharing your thoughts. I wish I had a clearer vision of what an alternative to the traditional teacher-directed tour would look like. I would love to hear from educators out there who have seen more informal, learner-centered models in action. In my most extreme moments, I imagine it should involve changes not only to museum education departments but also to curatorial approaches and exhibition design. I can imagine spaces where visitors are encouraged to respond to and interact with the art, where they are given ideas and/or materials for doing so…

    • Jackie, I think there’s some serious possibility in your imaginings at your most extreme moments: to create learner directed experiences, including tours, requires a series of changes. Changes in the physical environment are part of it and creating the conditions in which learners can lead with their questions, choices, explorations of materials, and ways of expressing their ideas. Teachers follow the learners’ ideas and thinking within a thoughtfully planned environment where art and materials are provocations to exploring. I also haven’t seen such a model in action but am following the work of the Columbus Museum of Art with interest as well as the work in the Municipal Schools for young children in Reggio Emilia.

      • Funny that you mention Reggio Emilia, Jeanne, because I was just thinking about what it would be like to apply the general approach of Montessori to school visits (and even the museum in general). I imagine a gallery of paintings from the 18th century, for instance, with stations such as 1) a basket of touchable objects (i.e. materials like velvet and lace students can see in the paintings) and a prompt to find the materials in the artwork and discuss their texture, their role in the work, etc, 2) a drawing prompt with paper and pencil available (in which students get to choose which work they respond to), 3) an image or passage students are asked to compare to a work or works. A facilitating educator would be circulating and talking to students about what they are finding. Later, this educator would help the whole group reflect on their experience and even conduct an inquiry-based conversation about a work so they can also experience an artwork as a whole group.

      • Jackie, I’ve been thinking about your idea of incorporating Montessori principles into school visits and in the museum in general. I think there are some differences between Montessori pedagogy and Reggio pedagogy that are relevant here. The selection and arrangement of materials that are beautiful and carefully calibrated to selected concepts are familiar in Montessori settings; they are intended to follow a particular sequence for exploration–although “exploration” might not be the correct Montessori term. In a Reggio-inspired approach, the teachers would select the art work and observe children’s engagement with them, their questions and ideas, if they struck a pose inspired by the art work, etc. Teachers follow the traces of children’s interests; document their observations and, following reflection, are carried forward into planned experiences that might offer materials for children to use in exploring the ideas and questions that surfaced as children engaged around the artwork. It is an approach that is somewhat difficult to adapt to a museum setting especially with a single visit. As a way to tell the story of about learning, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. A book like Dialogues With Places (by Reggio Children) is a good example of the nature of documentation of children’s exploring the aesthetic qualities of a space. Elee Kirk has written about school field trips from a Reggio perspective (“A School trip for Reggio Emilia: Enhancing Child-led Creativity in Museums” http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ekirkepaper.pdf) I’ve also written about some Reggio practices on my Museum Notes blog including on the museum-Reggio connection (http://museumnotes.blogspot.com/2013/04/exploring-reggio-museum-connection.html) and documentation (http://museumnotes.blogspot.com/2013/11/documentation-from-reggio-schools-to-us.html). There is a small but growing group of art educators and children’s museum educators exploring these ideas. I would be happy to plug you-and others-into this informal network.

      • Jackie, I am working with a children’s history museum and would very much like to be connected to the informal network of children’s museum educators. This is a great post and I appreciate your thoughtful approach to this topic.

  4. Hi Jackie, thanks for this article. In my work at Cool Culture, we ask similar questions, but focus on what can *families* do when we’re not here? I think often that we (museum educators) keep an educator-centric model (which admittedly aims at being student-centric) because it’s a power dynamic we’re used to through our own formal schooling. What you’ve proposed in the tour in which you give prompts to students, and peers lead each other, is sharing power with the students. What I struggle with is how we can go a step further to have students, or families, create their own prompts (as you’ve suggested — by starting with their questions). It’s hard for me b/c I think there has to be some meeting in the middle between novice audiences, be they students or parents, and museum educators who act as the more skilled peers that can provide scaffolding (Vygotsky) that know how to “do museums” and teach others to fish.

    One last thought, museum educators derive lots of pleasure from facilitating conversations about works of art. It’s a flow experience when it’s really humming. We’ve all been there. I think that’s what keeps us from moving away from the traditional model of educator as sole facilitator (vs co-facilitator with visitors). But the fact is, we need to partner with visitors to understand their experiences, interests and needs, in order to make the museum experience most relevant. This is best done by co-facilitating the museum experience with the visitor.

    • Barbara, thanks so much for your thoughts. I think it’s so interesting to think about the psychological reasons behind our commitment to educator-led tours. To add to what you are saying, I think museum educators are often extroverts. They learn from talking with others; they love talking to others. So to them it only makes sense that most students would want to learn by talking to others. But a lot of people want to learn by contemplation on their own. I am reading an article about the Tino Sehgal exhibition at the Guggenheim in which people were forced to interact as part of his piece and one visitor is described as being angry about this and saying: “When I come to a museum, I like to be alone with my thoughts.” I am proposing that we design school visits so that both kinds of experiences (and many more) are offered. We can have these inquiry-based group conversations about art, but we can also offer visitors time to “be alone with” their thoughts and tools to do this and other things on return visits as well.

  5. Barbara and Jackie, I’m really interested in this discussion about how to shift from an educator-led model of teaching. Would it be difficult to shift from this because educators enjoy leading conversations? If so, would museums run into the same problems that they have encountered shifting from an information-based approach to tours – the problem that docents often volunteer because of a love of that very information? When do museums make philosophical and pedagogical shifts, and how are these best facilitated?

  6. Wonderful conversation. Interestingly many of our docents have arrived at this same approach through their own experience and, I like to think, the emphasis we place on developing exactly these life-long skills. The issue I’ve found however with this model is not with the students (regardless of age, they get it) or their teachers, but simply with our museum staff who expect tour groups to behave in certain ways. I realize this is more a task for co-educating our colleagues than anything, but would be interested in knowing how others have handled.

    • I was definitely thinking about this as I wrote the post… I’m assuming you mean VS or Security staff who worry about students getting too close to the objects? This is one reason why I am so interested in this being a museum-wide conversation. Exhibition design could play such a critical role in creating spaces where informal “free-range” learning can happen while keeping objects safe… I also think there should be more objects available for touching to absorb some of this need (which I think is a natural, human need – heck, I see more adults touch in museums than kids) and to help learning happen through almost-all the senses.

  7. Hi Jackie. Thank you so much for this article. Recently we are heading in this direction with our tours. We have started making opportunities for students to engage with the artifacts in pairs relating them to the overall discussion of class in a colonial society. We give a student a character from the period and then ask them to find artifacts that have a relationship with their character and why. Its done in pairs. The object is to get children to see that objects have many stories and many connections to different people in a colonial society. Reading your post i notice that we still have a long way to go. We need to expand that exploratory experience directed by the students and maybe pull further from the school curriculum and focus even more on skill building. Also, training docents to ask the right questions to tease out observations is also difficult. I saw kids struggling to see the relationships between their characters, but that could have been our delivery. In any event, I love that we are testing to make adjustments. Im visiting schools next week, Ill certainly ask questions and share them with you!

    • Tramia, this sounds so cool! I would love to be able to see it! Please do report back and thank you so much for sharing about your program.

    • Hi Tramia,

      I was so interested to see your post, because I work at a series of historic sites, and I was trying to puzzle over how to apply the *great* ideas of this post to a non-art museum. I’m interested in what you are doing and wonder if you could share a little more info. In particular, I’m wondering what type of museum this is (I thought it might be a history museum because of the colonial mention, but maybe I’m wrong) and logistically, how this group activity fits into a program. Thanks!

      • Hi Margaret,
        I work at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center. We would be classified as a medium sized regional/city history museum that covers early Virginia Indians all the way to the Civil Rights Movement. We have two historic buildings (Town Hall and an early 20th century bank complete with original vault) that have kept most of their historical integrity on the outside, but have museum exhibitions on the insides. We also have our colonial market square that we use for concerts. We are located in the heart of downtown Fredericksburg, VA. Logistics are still being worked out on this particular tour:) Since our exhibit spaces hold between 15-25 kids at a time, when we have large groups we typically do multiple types of tours in a day and rotate them around. For this tour we start with an overview of what colonial port of Fredbrg was like and what Market Square and the Town Hall building was used for during the colonial period, then we go into who the people were that made up the City. We then give a pair or a group of students a card that has descriptions of representative figures/occupations that made up the different social classes in Fredericksburg and we ask them to go through our Decorative Arts gallery which has objects that almost each figure/occupation would interact with in some way and ask them to find an object and think of the relationship. You could look at a table as something a carpenter would create, but also as wood harvested from Spotsylvania (surrounding county) that was transported by Sailors to England, you could also see it as a table owned by a Plantation owner or cleaned by an enslaved woman living in that plantation owner’s home. Many kids can see the carpenter or a plantation owner, but have a hard time seeing a connection with the Sailor or even the enslaved lady’s maid. We are still playing logistical timing but we ideally want to spend more time in the gallery with the objects. We spend a few minutes asking groups to volunteer to speak about what objects they chose and why and what they learned or noticed. Again i think the ingredients are there, we are still working on delivery. I like the participatory nature, but we have a number of things that i struggle with like 1.) the incorporation of hands-on elements/reproductions 2.) delivery of ideas and instruction, 3.)timing, what to cut and what to keep in terms of content, 4) Scaffolding….As I said we still need someone work but we wanted to give the kids some freedom to explore without us telling them what to look for first.

      • Hi Tramia,

        Wow! First of all, this sounds like a really cool program idea! Second, thanks for sharing the info! I’m beginning to see how this type of approach might work for the “manor house” tours at two of our historic sites. A problem we encounter is that we have two separate historic sites that include a lot of period-appropriate hands-on activities. At each of these sites, the house tour sometimes seems like a downer–the requisite “learning time” in between all the other cool activities. But incorporating some kind of approach like this into the house tours might work. Obviously only the rich family lived in the house, but we could explore how the lives of other members of the society are reflected there, using this more expansive way of looking at objects. Thanks so much for the idea!

        BTW, if you want to keep this conversation going “off-line,” maybe to share developments on this work, my e-mail is mhughes@hudsonvalley.org. I’ll let you know how our interpretive efforts go!

  8. Great article, Jackie. Now that I’m on the other side (was a museum educator and now I’m an art teacher in a public school) I struggle with how to make museum trips meaningful for my students. I have had several trips where the students have come back disappointed about the narrow focus of the museum tour. Now I usually create my own tour and have classroom teachers and chaperones help with it. Part of the problem is that for many of my students the museum environment is alien to them and they react with either extreme excitement or intimidation and need to work through these feelings before they can begin to focus on a single object. My classroom practice is choice based and I love the idea of making a museum visit more choice based. However, because many students are used to a teacher led/controlled model of learning in their classrooms, choice based learning takes some getting used to and often feels less controlled, which may bother some educators. That said, I think it is well worth working through some of the challenges of choice based tours because it ultimately empowers students in the museum and will hopefully encourage them to return.

    • Joanne, I totally get this. I was also a classroom teacher and both the students and the teachers came into field trips with a lot of anxiety. We were worried about behavior. Students were worried about being in an unfamiliar place. I think we don’t often think enough about emotions in a museum visit – and in museums in general – and how we can address them, work with them, etc. I definitely try to think about it as part of my teaching practice but what if it was considered when we designed the programs in general? What kind of format or design could make students feel comfortable and encourage them to make their own choices etc?

  9. This is not exactly an alternate tour strategy, but more an alternate exhibition strategy that we can perhaps share with exhibit designers. I remember visiting an exhibition in DC, I think at the National Gallery, MANY years ago, while I was still a classroom teacher and enjoying museums, but not yet connecting the two in a career path. I wandered uneasily into an art exhibition I think called “Comparisons” which juxtaposed 2 works of art and the label text included questions to help you understand how to view the pieces and compare them. It forced you to look at the art, and gave you a starting point for interpersonal or intrapersonal discussion about it and begin to understand HOW to look at it (I realize getting visitors to read labels is not always easy, but with technology there are alternate means now of conveying info). If more exhibitions included questions that helped visitors know how to look at the art (or the period room or the historical artifact, etc) museum educators might not need to lead the tours, only facilitate them.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking blogpost and discussion!

    • Yes! I have to say that I have been really enjoying taking my young kids to Children’s Museums lately. The one in Providence has amazing questions to prompt parents to think about how their children are learning and how they can interact with and encourage their child’s natural learning tendencies. It is very gently, accessibly metacognitive. I would LOVE to see more like this in art museums!

  10. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

  11. Hello Jeanne, Sorry, there is no way for me to reply to our thread directly. I wanted to say thank you for linking to those resources! I will definitely look into them. I do really love Reggio Emilia and its emphasis on following students’ interests and documenting learning for all to see. I love the idea of it informing our museum education work. As for Montessori, I agree that their materials wouldn’t be able to translate directly into the museum, but I like Montessori’s emphasis on students being allowed to choose their “work” (as they put it in my daughter’s Montessori school), providing “work” that is developmentally of interest to students, teachers “floating” around to assist in moving children forward with their “work” as well as working on more specific skills with individuals or pairs, and all students coming together for “circle time” to learn about new “work” (or activities) and to reflect. I think my call for action is related somewhat to the Montessori philosophy in that I think there are developmentally specific skills, questions, and activities that are related to museum learning that we can work to uncover in order to help us design these “work” stations for more open-choice museum teaching.

  12. Pingback: Questioning the Questioning of Questions | Art Museum Teaching

  13. Hi Jackie, I shared this article with my Director, Dr. Susan Glasser, and here are her comments on this thread:

    The theory behind this discussion seems to me to be constructivist learning theory. Constructivist learning theory emphasizes the learner’s role in constructing knowledge and self-directing learning. The single best book I’ve ever read on this theory is “Teaching with Your Mouth Shut” by the late Donald Finkel–it will completely change your idea of the role of an educator. The Education School at Harvard is also doing a lot of work on this concept–particularly as it relates to museums with their Project Zero Thinking Routines–simple, elegant, and really works for getting kids to have meaningful object-based discussions based on their own interests. By the way, I’ve familiar with the gallery adventures that Tramia (above) is doing and they are super.

  14. Pingback: What is “Classroom Management” in the museum? | Museum Questions

  15. Pingback: Adults are Learners, Too | Museum Questions

  16. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

  17. Pingback: Should museums deaccession art to pay staff? | Museum Questions

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s