Program Promotes Viewer, Art and Artist Relationship

Susan Shifrin, Associate Director for Education at the Berman Museum of Art, was looking for a way to get Ursinus students more engaged with the photographs currently on display in the galleries. She set about recruiting and training twenty-one so-called “peer docents,” schooling them on the multiple ways to look at art. The ultimate goal of the program is to produce a ready corps of students who will be able to guide small groups of their peers through the viewing process.

During several short training sessions, Dr. Shifrin explained what exactly it means to be a “docent.” Docent comes from the Latin “to teach,” and she made clear to the student guides that teaching someone to look at art does not involve telling them what to think. Instead, the peer docents are there only to provide relevant context and ask thought-provoking questions. In doing so, the hope is that the students viewing the work of art will be able to develop their own ideas and build a personal connection with the piece.

This spring, the peer docents shared what they had learned about the current photographic exhibitions on display in the Berman, Robert Frank’s Spaces, Places, and Identity and Don Camp’s Dust Shaped Hearts. On a dreary Wednesday morning, peer docents Pamela Horn 2013 of Stratford, N.J., and Shama Gupta 2014 of Cranbury, N.J., guided freshmen from Professor Rebecca Jaroff’s Common Intellectual Experience class through the galleries. The docents did a great job of encouraging the CIE students to get up close to the photos and focus on the little details that help to reveal the narrative of the image. Many of the students seemed genuinely curious, craning their heads and bunching together to get a closer look.

As the CIE class gathered around a photograph of a somber funeral scene, one student observed that the shoulders and heads in the foreground really made him feel like a part of the photograph, almost like he was lost in the crowd. This type of reaction is one that peer docent Shama encouraged when she emphasized the importance of finding something that you like and really becoming absorbed in the art.

After the session, Dr. Jaroff noted that the she thinks the peer docent program is a great idea since it fits well with the Common Intellectual Experience. The core of both programs is “students engaging students” in conversation, allowing the professor to step back and let the students build off of one another’s ideas.

The peer docents have completed sessions with five CIE classes and two residence halls so far this year. Dr. Shifrin hopes that more student groups will take advantage of the peer docent program because it helps people “to find a way in” when it comes to approaching art. She pioneered this type of student program in the area in 2004 when she implemented it for a multi-venue exhibition called “Picturing Women,” and is excited about bringing it to Ursinus.

The photos are there to be viewed, and as Robert Frank puts it, the viewer “must have something to see. It is not all said for him.” The reactions that the peer docent program attempts to provoke are therefore an integral part of the art itself, and the program promotes a relationship between viewer, art, and artist.  — By David Hysek 2011