Monday, 10 November 2014

Museum volunteer work

I finished by assignment at the Canadian War Museum and have now returned to the National Gallery of Canada to start a new Season of Lectures and school work with visiting schools and introducing children to art, age group 6 to 12 years old. I am also a docent-guide and give small lectures 10 minutes or more on a specific works of art in the Gallery. All this is volunteer work and requires a lot of preparation and reading, you simply cannot do it cold turkey, not possible and very dangerous since there is always someone lurking about with that clever question or observation.

So preparation is everything and it also has to be entertaining. The Mercredis Culturels lectures is a 54 year old program and I have been the convenor for the last 2 years organizing lectures with various experts on an Art Topic of their choice. I had prepared a lecture just in case of an emergency if a lecturer cancelled and this did happen last week. I re-wrote the lecture in 48 hours and re-arranged my slides. My topic was the Hermitage Museum it's history from 1764 to 1936. This year is the 250th Anniversary of its foundation by Catherine II of Russia. It went very well and got a standing ovation and many compliments from the audience which surprised me no end.

The School program is just as complicated they may be in the 6 to 12 year old range they know what is of interest to them. Usually abstract, modern, contemporary art is a hit, kids understand that easily, it appeals to them. Classical, Academic, old Masters, Renaissance gets a big yawn, unless there are children or animals in the painting.

Maman by Louise Bourgeois at the NGC

So this year I will do tours inside the Museum and at local schools in the region of the National Capital. At the museum the tours are 50 minutes total and you take the kids around the galleries and present chosen selected paintings, at least you get a break after your tour is done and can have a coffee. Not so in local schools, this is a free program and since the Provincial Government cut all Art programs in schools some years ago, we are the only free outlet for them and you spend all day in school without as much as a pee break. This year again I am presenting a program on the Renaissance because one school asked for it. As for the other schools it will be about Abstract and Surrealism, Kandinsky and Magritte. The goal is to give the kids a first appreciation for Art, they often have no exposure what so ever in their lives unless a relative is an artist. I engage them by asking what they see in a painting or what attracts their attention, getting them to talk about a painting and playing a game of discovery works well. I also try to challenge what they may have been told about art or how to interpret it. I talk about the painter, the history behind the making of the painting, the people in it, who they are, etc.

It can be very challenging because they do not know why they should even be interested. It is also important to get the teachers into the act, many have never set foot in a Museum. My goal is to reach the kids if one person is happy and engaged then it is all worthwhile.

As for the public at the Museum who come for the talks and presentations, the goal is to make their visit worthwhile and hope that they will come back regularly. Unfortunately in Ottawa going to a museum is not an activity anyone considers. Many people I have spoken to have been in a museum once in 30 years, usually for an hour. It is a challenge to get them to come and stop to look. This is all part of the job and I take it to heart. Again I find that if you give visitors background on a painting and the artist, a bit of history and compare one artist to another to highlight differences or similarities people respond well to that, they can connect and it is no longer just a painting on the wall. We even get into conversations about framing, often people will ask how we got that frame or why this type of frame, they may not like it and think it is ugly. The whole idea is to make Art approachable and easy to assimilate.

It did work fairly well this summer when comparing the painters Otto Dix and AY Jackson. In the end despite the fact that Jackson is well known to Canadians many preferred Dix. The reason was that they had discovered a painter who was complex and controversial and was not afraid to explore difficult themes. He was a puzzle for viewers whereas Jackson was just plain.

All this to say that I do enjoy what I am doing as a Volunteer.


  1. congratulations! they are fortunate to have you.

  2. You are providing a great service to your community. It's a shame that the art programs get cut first. It's a true loss.

  3. You'll never know the good you do -- you may be the spark that causes some child (or even adult) to think about things they never did before or to get interested in art or history. Just keep the faith!