Please note: We are please to announce Alli Hartley will be sharing an on-going series of post on what it is like to set up a Teen Docent program.  We hope this inspires conversations so please feel free to leave comments or tweet @nmafateens or us at @teensinmuseums

By:Alli Hartley is the Teen Ambassador Programs Intern

This spring at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, I have been tasked with building a “Teen Ambassador Program” for teens to volunteer with us throughout the museum. For those who are unfamiliar with us, the National Museum of Art is located on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Our mission is to inspire conversations about the beauty, power and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide. We’re excited this spring to provide teens with the tools to promote cross-cultural understandings of Africa among our museum audiences.

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 5.40.21 PMThe program launches Saturday February 28th , and the teens will participate in various trainings on weekends during the spring, before giving special teen tours to groups of other teens and eventually the general public in the early summer. The teens will also interact with the public by facilitating art carts. Teen Ambassadors will study artworks in our collection, but they will also have a chance to learn gallery teaching techniques used by museum educators worldwide. We will give our Ambassadors the opportunity to learn more about careers in the arts through interactions with museum staff across a range of departments as well as staff in other Smithsonian institutions. These interactions will include “meet the museum” sessions, during which staff from departments within our museum discuss their projects and careers, and cross-trainings with teen programs at other Smithsonian museums. Our anticipated outcomes include building leadership skills for the teens that can be applied to future careers both inside and outside of the arts, as well as unique exposure to art and -art-related career options.

My main goal for this project is to demystify the idea of a museum experience for teenagers. I want the teens to develop a broad understanding of our museum, and the museum world. I also want them to feel comfortable going out into a gallery–any gallery—and facilitating a conversation around a piece of art. If at the end of their time volunteering, our teens have the skills to look at art, speak confidently about it, and listen to what others say and notice in the art, then my program will be a success.

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 5.44.23 PM (1)I am very excited to start working with this particular group of teens. Our pilot class has 12 teens from the D.C. metropolitan area, mainly coming to us from Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The students are diverse and curious; they describe themselves as puzzle makers and problem solvers. They are readers and writers who speak multiple languages, and have a passion for history and the arts. Some of my teens applied because they engage with art in their academic coursework, in classes such as creative writing or history, and now want to engage others in art. Others have ancestral or familial connections to Africa and are participating as a way to explore their cultural identity. All of my teens are either seeking some sort of connection between their existence and art, or seeking to inspire these types of connections in others.

As of now, this program will be in pilot form throughout the spring. We have prepared a curriculum for our first six training sessions which will focus on our Conversations exhibit. Following the six week training, we will evaluate the teens and use our evaluations to determine the rest of our program schedule. I am okay with not having all program ideas set in stone because this flexibility allows us to respond to various wants and needs the teens may have, but as a Type A control freak, it took me a while to get to this point. The only way I can make space for the teens to be co-creators is to let go of some of my control, but it has been scary for me to tell colleagues “I have a general idea but I can’t tell you specifics until later” and a challenge for them to hear. I know that I need to let go, reflect on the program as it unfolds and then rely on these reflections to guide the future of this program, but it is hard for me and hard for my institution not to have all the answers.

The idea of “letting go of authority” seems to be a reoccurring theme in my concerns as we plan out this program. I have received a lot of questions about the quality of the tours the teens will be giving and how we make sure they are fully equipped in such a short time frame. My hope is that the teen “gallery guides” will provide a completely different tour experience than what we currently offer at the museum. There are many different types of gallery experiences that can occur in museums, and we do not have a need for teens to give traditional guided tours since our adult docents already do such a good job at this. I will be teaching the teens object-based learning techniques, gallery games and other fun tour techniques aligned with museum curriculums such as Project Zero and Visual Thinking Strategies. These teaching techniques invite audience participation rather than rely on the guide to offer an abundance of background knowledge. When I first learned these techniques in my museum education graduate program, it was a challenge for me to let go and allow my audience’s interest and observations drive the program, but I was able to facilitate really powerful, audience-driven experiences as I learned to let go of my interpretive authority and build from my audience’s observations and interests. Our teens will undergo the same process as they learn to let go of common ideas of “lecture-style” instruction and instead learn how to teach “inquiry-style”. My colleagues in the museum industry are learning to let go as museums introduce new types of gallery teaching and figure out how to incorporate these programs in ways that mesh with existing tour programs.

All of these are challenges personally and institutionally, but all are challenges that I am excited to work on with my creative colleagues and most importantly, my creative teens. I will be blogging throughout the project with updates on how the program, and will check back midway through training to let you know how this program is proceeding.

Follow @nmafateens and see how they are getting along! 

Alli Hartley is the Teen Ambassador Programs Intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and a graduate student in Museum Education at George Washington University. Her background is in small historic sites and her passion is engaging people in their local history.