School Tours: What is the impact of offering a menu of tour topics?

This week’s guest post is by David Bowles, Gallery Educator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In his role at the Getty, David conducts scholarly research in preparation for leading gallery conversations, lectures, tours, courses, and other programs, as well as supervising docent teaching in the galleries. Prior to this he led K-12 School Programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. David is on the board of the Museum Education Roundtable, which publishes the Journal of Museum Education, the only American journal devoted to the theory and practice of museum education. David has an M.S.Ed from Bank Street College and a B.A. with Honours from McGill University.

From 2013-2017, I led School Programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where I spent a great deal of time training and evaluating the volunteers who led guided visits for K-12 school groups. In 2017, after moving across the country, I joined the Gallery Education team at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Met and the Getty Center, both enormous and important art museums in large coastal cities, offer guided visits for K-12 visitors, led by docents.

Working in these two institutions has given me a unique opportunity to compare and contrast approaches to school programs. Both the Met and the Getty offer a fairly extensive online form to book the visit. Both institutions also welcome huge numbers of these visitors each year. However, the Met offers 27 different tour topics, while the Getty Center invites K-12 visitors for a guided visit without a specific tour topic.

This point of difference leads to the question: What is the impact of offering a menu of tour topics, and what are the implications of offering teachers a single tour option? Clearly there are advantages to both approaches. You can read more about how both institutions position their K-12 tours by visiting and, respectively.

What are the implications of inviting teachers to choose from a menu of tour themes?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Curriculum Connections. The Met’s wide array of K-12 tour topics offers clear guideposts for classroom teachers seeking to make curricular connections during their museum visit. Some tour topics are collections-based, like Art of Ancient Egypt; other topics span several collections areas, like Art of the Silk Road. Still other topics are thematic, like Amazing Animals. These tour choices offer teachers some control over what their students experience during their visit, and on post-visit surveys teachers often cite the tour topic as of primary importance in their decision to visit the Met over other museums. In my experience, the collections-based topics tend to reinforce social studies connections well for upper elementary, middle, and high-school groups, while thematic topics have a similar appeal to early elementary-age classrooms.

This approach offers another advantage: a focused topic can be a tool to convince a reluctant principal of the academic merit of the museum visit.

Teacher Choice. The act of choosing is in many ways primal. And in a vast, nearly encyclopedic collection like the Met’s, allowing teachers to choose a focus can make a lot of sense. After all, a teacher whose class is studying the cultures of Ancient Egypt may have no interest in seeing European paintings during their class visit. Consequently, these tour topics offer teachers the chance to have more control over their museum tour. Alternatively, choosing between so many tour topics can be head-spinningly complicated. Sometimes teachers just want to bring their students to the museum! Choosing from an array of 27 tour topics can feel like trying to buy toothpaste at a large drug store: at a certain point, the choice is paralyzing.

Training Volunteers. As a museum educator responsible for training the volunteers who led the majority of these experiences at the Met, I found that tour topics gave our planning discussions direction and focus. Tour topics defined the scope and sequence of questioning strategies, object selection, and content research. Sometimes tour themes could help predict likely grade-levels for visitors — for example in New York City public schools, the cultures of Ancient Assyria, Babylon, and Sumeria are typically part of a 6th grade curriculum, so we could consider age-appropriate teaching strategies as we planned our “Art of Ancient Mesopotamia” tours. Other tour topics were only offered to certain grade levels of visitors. This allowed some groups of volunteers to specialize in teaching certain ages – something that might be considered a strength by some institutions and a liability by others.

All of this meant that we trained different teams of volunteers to lead each topic. In order to cover all possible tour topics, some groups of volunteers could not be trained to lead tour topics that were in high demand. One unintended result of this was that hierarchies emerged; volunteers perceived some topics as preferable to others. Perhaps predictably, desirable tour topics were those that were least frequently requested by teachers (there’s another blog post in here begging to be written about the social and pedagogical economics of supply and demand!).

Staying Focused in the Galleries. Tour topics also allowed us to redirect gallery conversations that began to get off-track. For example if a gallery conversation drifted away from the artwork or theme in question, redirecting the experience was often a simple matter of asking the group to consider how the artwork under discussion shed new light on the tour topic. Having a tour topic in mind gave many guides a clear way to decide whether a student’s line of inquiry might lead to a productive direction, or whether it was off-topic.

Scheduling Volume. The scheduling matrix necessary to offer all 27 tour topics at the Met is complex. Tour topics are scheduled at 15 minute intervals to avoid overcrowding in popular galleries and to ensure coverage. Not every tour can be offered every day, so priority is given to the most popular topics. A teacher interested in Art of Ancient Egypt (the Met’s most popular K-12 tour) can book a tour on any day of the week: good news for teachers with rigid school calendars.  On the other hand, topics like Art of Spain are offered less frequently. As a result, some teachers simply schedule a tour based on the date and time offered, regardless of whether the topic is of interest or relevance to their students. And with so many tour topics on offer, many tour slots remain unused because no one chose those topics, even though classes may have wanted to visit the museum at that time, had a different topic been available.

What are the implications of simply offering teachers a guided visit?

The Getty Center

The Getty Center’s single tour offering, A Closer Look, offers its own set of opportunities and challenges.

Clarity. Offering one tour theme streamlines the planning process considerably. Teachers at the Getty understand that their class’s one-hour visit will involve four 15-minute stops, and that those stops are outside of their control. This shifts the focus of the tours from making direct curriculum connections towards a focus on pedagogy (more on this shortly). It also makes scheduling, booking, and confirming the visit much easier for the museum.

Scheduling Volume. Offering one tour topic allows the Getty to easily assess its capacity and ensure that the maximum number of students have access to the museum. The scheduling matrix is clear, concise, and efficient, and maximizes access to the museum. The institution is able to welcome vast numbers of K-12 students because it determines their route for them in advance. This gives teachers tremendous flexibility to book a guided visit that meets their scheduling needs, and from a Museum perspective, ensures that nearly all available tour slots are taken.

Prioritizing Process. Both institutions emphasize an inquiry-based approach to student learning, but the Getty’s single guided-visit offering explicitly prioritizes student meaning-making, rather than a curriculum or school subject. Because of this, the K-12 tours that I’ve had the opportunity to lead and observe so far have focused on the acts of perceiving, exploring, questioning, and discussing art objects.

A Focus on Museum Learning. In my experience at the Met, teachers and school administrators sometimes expected the museum to “teach to the test” in some form or another during their guided visit. This sometimes took the form of unrealistic requests that a tour cover many months’ worth of coursework (or dozens of paintings) in an hour, or disheartening requests to pack-in as much content as possible by eliminating activities, sketching, or even conversation itself from tours. By eschewing tour topics that are overtly aligned with school subjects, the Getty is in a position to pivot away from overtly answering to formal education, and to focus on the strengths of museum learning itself. Ben Garcia explored this issue in the Journal of Museum of Education several years ago, arguing that, “when museums describe their educational impact to stakeholders, it is often described narrowly, using the measures of formal education rather than focusing on its capacity to model intrinsically-motivated, joyful, open-ended learning that supports self-knowledge and positive social behavior.”

Training Docents. At the Getty, docents are trained to lead 60-minute tours with four stops on predetermined routes called ‘quartets.’ There are several different quartets, and docents cycle through them in a predictable fashion so that everyone has the chance to lead each. While quartets specify which four galleries a docent will visit with students, they do not dictate which artworks to focus on. Two docents leading the same quartet are therefore likely to visit different artworks along the way, even though they follow the same general route through the museum.

Preparing volunteers to lead guided visits is a complex undertaking, and there is something to be said for preparing them to lead a focused exploration of artworks, rather than study a host of content-based tour topics. Docents can be more flexible and adaptable when it comes to artwork selections, and are better able to adapt to student interests and inquiries. Docent anxiety shifts from preparing to lead multiple tour topics to preparing to lead lively conversations about artworks. I’ve heard several colleagues and docents frame this training process as the simple question, “What is the artwork asking students to do?”

Where does that leave us?

A school group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Broadly speaking, the multi-tour topic strategy seems to prioritize strong curriculum connections and teacher choice, but in some ways limits the number of guided visits that museums are able to offer schools. The single tour topic strategy places a personal connection with works of art at the center of the schools’ museum visit and increases the number of guided visits offered, but presents challenges to making curriculum connections.

What does your museum do? What other strategies are out there? What do you think museums should be trying?


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