April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Educators, Curators and Docents: Creating Interpretive Resources based on Conversation

Beth Harris,, Christina Olsen, Portland Art Museum, and Steven Zucker,, USA


This paper explores the impact of a workshop held at the Portland Art Museum in May 2009, in which docents, curators, and educators together discussed and created twelve video-based “conversations" about works of art in the Museum, under the guidance of Smarthistory founders Steven Zucker and Beth Harris. Evaluation conducted of both the workshop and videos raises questions about the value of “expertise" for visitors, and the significant advantages of conversation over monologue as a pedagogical method.

Keywords: interpretation, conversation, mobile, podcasting, visitor studies, iphone


In May 2009, Dr. Christina Olsen, the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, and Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, Smarthistory's founders, brought together museum docents, curators, and educators for a unique cross-department workshop, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Our primary goal was to produce ten to twelve simple video and audio-based "conversations" about works of art in the museum's permanent collection; they would be made available to visitors on an iPod that could be borrowed at the museum or downloaded from the iTunes "app" store. However, there were several other important, though less tangible, goals. These included shifting interpretive priorities from special exhibitions exclusively to the permanent collection, strengthening the relationship between curators and educators, and empowering content experts to become media producers by employing simple and inexpensive screencasting and audio recording technology. Harris and Zucker's conversational approach was deliberately explored and adopted (see; the videos were to be unscripted conversations that, while informed, allowed for emotion, discovery, and even disagreement and were intended to model for audiences their own possible engagement with works of art. Smarthistory's method has proven to be broadly applicable to the discipline of Art History for both students and informal learners, but Harris and Zucker had little sense of whether the conversational style, allowing for emotion and disagreement, would be effective in a museum setting, or with non-Western art. Lastly, Zucker and Harris hoped the experience of the workshop would help them create a new section of devoted to helping other educators and institutions create their own interpretive media. This paper focuses on the goals, mechanics, and results of the workshop, and the research that was subsequently conducted by the Portland Art Museum on the tangible products of the workshops - the videos.

Background: Smarthistory

Harris and Zucker both have spent years teaching art history in the classroom and on-line at the State University of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. They began more than four years ago, soon after Apple introduced podcasting. At first it was a blog ( featuring free audio guides in the form of podcasts for use in The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Soon after, they embedded simple Mp3 audio files in their on-line survey courses, and the response from students was so positive that they decided to organize the audio and video chronologically to create a multi-media art history survey is now a free, widely used multi-media Web-book designed as a dynamic enhancement (or even substitute) for the traditional art history textbook. It is aimed at undergraduate students, museum visitors, and other informal learners. was designed around the idea that a lecture could be replaced with unscripted conversation. The site aims to provide reliable content and a delivery model that is entertaining and occasionally even playful. In Zucker and Harris' experience, the unpredictable nature of discussion is far more compelling for students than monologue. Lecture and essay can, of course, be enormously valuable strategies for conveying complex information, but too often, the result is student passivity and disengagement. In contrast, a conversation is spontaneous and may move in an unanticipated direction. It is precisely because conversation has twists and turns that the listener remains engaged with both the content and the interaction of the speakers. The videos are based on informed but spontaneous conversations about works of art where Harris and Zucker (or other Smarthistory contributors) are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy.

Perhaps most important, the process of conversation models students' own learning process. Students watch new ideas develop rather than receive them fully formed, and the conversations model for them exactly the experience we want them to have - a willingness to bravely encounter the unfamiliar and transform it in ways that make it meaningful to them. Feedback from students in our courses, as well as from a survey recently posted on the site, has indicated that the unpredictable nature of discussion is far more compelling to students, museum visitors and other informal learners than a monologue. When students listen to shifts of meaning as the speakers seek to understand each other, they model the experience they want visitors to the site to have - a willingness to encounter unfamiliar works of art with an open mind, and explore ways of making the work meaningful through close looking.

Background: the Portland Art Museum

The Portland Art Museum was a logical place to experiment with conversation-based interpretation for a range of reasons. The Museum is the seventh oldest in the United States and the oldest on the West Coast. It has a broad collection of more than 42,000 objects, from antiquities to contemporary art, with particular strengths in the art of the native peoples of North America, English silver, and the graphic arts. The vast majority of its gallery space is devoted to this broad permanent collection, but with minimal interpretation. Public tours are offered by docents, there are labels, a few text panels, and occasionally special talks by curators. All public interpretation is created or delivered by docents, educators, or curators, and yet when Olsen arrived to head up the Education Department in 2008, it was clear that these groups had never talked together about interpretation - why and how we do it - and there was little knowledge about what was working. This is hardly unusual: distinct economies of scale (so many school children to serve) and prestige governs the roles of museum educator and curator, and for years (and still today) many in museums don't think these jobs have much to do with one another. Like most other museums, the Portland Art Museum offered audioguides for special exhibitions, but could not afford to extend them to the permanent collection. It also had no dedicated staff person devoted to adult interpretation or educational technology, and had neither the know-how nor the resources to take on the creation of its own technology-based content.

While the absence of resources, expertise, or discourse was daunting, it also offered a blank slate for new ideas, and a space where a lot of impact could be felt quickly. And the timing was right: with a new director and the economy declining the museum was interested in refocusing attention to the permanent collection. In the past few years it had also become clear that content experts at museums and universities were no longer dependent on centralized IT departments to create and distribute high-quality educational content. With the advent of low-cost, easy to use content creation and distribution tools, the stranglehold of expensive, proprietary solutions for media-based interpretation was loosening. Harris and Zucker's simple and low-cost video and audio-based "conversations" about works of art appeared to offer the Museum a sustainable technology solution.

But as we began planning, the real puzzle was how to jump start significant dialogue between disparate staff with little history of collaboration about a new interpretive methodology and technique. Yet we knew that excluding any of these groups would imperil the project's long-term success and diminish its capacity for real impact. As colleagues in other museums were consulted, it became clearer that almost no museums brought curators, educators, and docents together to produce, or even discuss, interpretation for the public. Docent voices are almost never included in “published" museum interpretation, and educators without advanced degrees in art history are also usually not part of conversations about interpreting works of art, except perhaps for specialized audiences like children.

Thus, we conceived the workshop with an ambitious suite of goals. We wanted to empower the curatorial and education departments with conversational strategies and inexpensive easy-to-use equipment and software. We also wanted to provide a forum for museum interpreters to talk and share new research and ideas about learning in museums, especially learning by way of conversation. And finally, we wanted to produce a series of videos which we could then offer to the public and evaluate, to test our assumption about the value of this strategy in museums.

The Workshop

The Workshop spanned two days. Attendees included seven educators, three curators, two docents, and Steven Zucker and Beth Harris. In preparation, participants were asked to read several articles on interpretation (see references below to Burnham, Samis, and Proctor). They were also asked to listen to different types of audio/video museum interpretation - some were long, some short; some were conversations while others were lectures and interviews. We discussed which of these the participants found most engaging and most informative, and why.

For the icebreaker ,each workshop attendee was asked to bring a reproduction of an object that had personal meaning - these also formed the basis of the first audio recordings. Over the course of the two days, each participant had four opportunities to create recordings in the galleries, followed by time to listen, reflect and discuss. We experimented with different pairings - curator/curator, curator/educator, educator/educator, educator/docent, and docent/docent. In some pairings an object would be intimately familiar to one of the speakers, while in others, the object was less familiar to both. Harris and Zucker also took turns in the mix. Of the twenty conversations we recorded, twelve resulted in what we felt was "publishable." A sub-set of educators and docents worked closely with Harris and Zucker to learn how to edit the videos, and in the second day of the workshop we all listened to rough cuts of those edited conversations, and critiqued them together.

In our discussions, we explored the following questions:

  • Where should the media we created reside - on the Web site and/or in the galleries? How would it be accessed it the galleries?
  • What formats (audio or video, long or short) would be best for those different settings?
  • What style was best - an exploratory conversation or a relaxed interview? Is style tied to the purpose of the recording (a gallery overview, to model discovery, or an in-depth explication)?
  • Does the conversation’s style depend on the speakers’ roles (docents, curators, educators - or a combination of those) and/or their familiarity and expertise with the object that was discussed?
  • What visual material is most useful in the gallery versus on the Web site? Should visual material be offered in the gallery? If so, what kind of material would be best? Should we use a combination of photos of the image and video of the speakers?

After the workshop, the four groups who participated (Portland Art Museum educators, Northwest Film Center educators, curators, and docents) each recorded their impressions of the workshop. To summarize those comments, many curators described entering the workshop skeptically, concerned about whether the conversational approach would be useful for non-Western art and whether it might just be an audio version of Janson; in the end they agreed that being in the galleries together and having spontaneous conversations about works of art in their own collections was surprisingly revealing and enlightening - even when the conversation brought together expert and non-expert. One curator noted that it was ideal for "modeling for a neophyte, how you might socially engage in talking about art, the way that looking at art with another person can really nudge you to see more all the time." Finally, "concerns about [the] inapplicability [to non-Western art] actually dissolved pretty quickly."

All groups expressed appreciation for the opportunity to take time out of busy schedules and think about interpretive strategies across departments. Many participants described the workshop as therapeutic and restorative.

Participants recognized that there were many ways to employ the conversational mode - and not one "right way."

Several people agreed that more research would need to be done about which approach worked best for which audience (expert/expert, expert/non-expert, or non-expert/non-expert). There was also interest in the process of editing and determining the core bite of information that engages viewers. They hoped that in future videos, listeners could be offered the opportunity to learn more about specific aspects of a work of art, depending on what interested them.

Participants recognized that there might be other applications for the conversational approach and for the videos themselves - as tools for teachers preparing to bring their class to the museum, or as ways to experiment with the standard format of the single docent-led one-hour tour. One docent commented on the "experience of how wonderful it is and invigorating it is and how unexpected it can be to have a conversation" and noted that it would be fun to experiment with two docents leading a conversational tour. Visitors could be incorporated into the conversation, and experiments with mixing docent experts and non experts might be interesting. It was hypothesized that conversation-based interpretation might stimulate kids to participate. The Film Center educators were excited to think about whether this method would work for interpreting film.

Smarthistory's How-to Page

A direct result of the workshop was the addition of "Create & Teach;" a new section of the Web site intended to offer assistance to individuals and institutions interested in creating conversational interpretation using simple and inexpensive technology. The section includes "Ten Tips for Recording Conversations," a best practices list Harris and Zucker created in support of the workshop, and a technology workflow page.

Look afresh and closely at the object - even if it is something you are very familiar with

Enjoy yourself and share your enthusiasm, be emotional and passionate.

Be spontaneous, don't think too much about "points" to make; trust that some will emerge naturally (and accept that others will not)

Listen carefully to your partner and respond to what s/he has said and to their more subtle cues

Be willing to give up control of the conversation; don't be afraid to explore an idea and be wrong

Be personal - have opinions, connect things to your own experience. Just don't lecture or go on too long

Don't ask questions of your partner that require a specific answer

Don't be afraid to gently disagree with each other; differences of opinion bring art history alive for your audience

Remember that everything can be edited; do a second or third "take" if the first was problematic

Try to limit your recordings to 3-6 minutes in length except when discussing large complex subjects

The workshop cost the Museum $18,044, which included the costs of bringing Harris and Zucker to Portland, all necessary hardware and software, and marketing the pilot iphone tour.

Evaluation of the Videos

Within about a month of the workshop's conclusion, the remaining videos were edited and published on Smarthistory's Web site, the Museum's YouTube channel, and the Museum's Web site. Several months after that, the Museum made the conversations available within the museum by way of an iphone application that visitors could download from the App Store or access on borrowed iPod Touches in the Museum lobby. The application provided basic information about museum exhibitions and programs, provided maps of the building, and offered the twelve videos for viewing. We developed an intercept survey, and between November and December 2009 conducted 100 surveys of visitors. Developed and implemented entirely by Museum staff, the survey was a "first run" at understanding visitor experience with the videos. Its goals were to find out what visitors thought about the conversational format; what they liked and didn't like about the videos, including their length; and whether they found the iphone application easy to use or not. We also gathered some key information about the respondents so we could better understand their answers, such as whether they had watched the videos alone or with others, their age, and whether they had used an iphone or iPod touch before.

Overall, visitors responded extremely positively to the videos. In response to the question, "Which of the following statements best describes your experience with watching the videos?" 61 people responded that the videos gave them a deeper understanding of the artwork, and 55 replied that the videos helped them appreciate the artwork more. But 14 of the 100 responded that the videos distracted from their experience, and 4 answered that they had no effect on their experience. When asked about the conversational format, the replies were also positive and quite interesting. In response to the question, "The Museum decided to make these videos as conversations rather than recording one expert talking about the work of art. Did you like or dislike the conversational format? Why?", 60 responded that they liked it; 13 that they disliked it; 11 were neutral; 4 replied that they liked "some of them." The comments of those who liked it clustered around the range of perspectives and differing viewpoints the conversations provided: "I liked the differing opinions..." "I liked it because it gave you a chance to agree or disagree." "I liked it because it takes it away from the expert pontificating and admits that there is more than one possible interpretation;" Another cluster of responses remarked on the informality of the interactions and articulated the ways that informality, and the back and forth, made them feel included "They responded the way you would respond, but with more knowledge of course;" "It feels like you're more involved. It's less like a lecture – more like you're in a discussion, even though you're not actually talking;" "It was funny. I liked that it was casual, enjoyable, but not preachy-teachy."

The thirteen respondents who did not like the format often cited the same qualities, but as a complaint: "It was too wishy-washy. I would prefer one person giving art historical information;" "the eavesdropping didn't work for me"; and one person remarked, "I prefer an expert – knowing for sure that something is something;" “Ok. I wondered if they were professionals. Wondered if it were factual or no;" and “I prefer an expert talking" and “I don’t like banter. The speakers need to look up information before recording. I could speculate too."

This last cluster of responses about expertise raises a series of questions. The majority of the speakers were of course experts by anyone’s reckoning: curators and art historians. But unfortunately, all did not note their full title at the beginning of the recording, so it isn’t always clear who is speaking. And the wording of the survey question might have led to some of these responses (“The Museum decided to make these conversations as conversations rather than recording one expert talking about the work of art.") Reading this, did respondents assume these conversations were between non-experts? We also wondered whether the very fact of disagreement and diversity of opinion challenged people’s ideas, cultivated by museums themselves, that there is one unchallengeable set interpretation of a work of art. And of course some people might simply prefer to hear “straight information." The responses point tellingly to the research John Falk and others have published about visitors’ varied motivations in art museums. But their responses point the way to larger questions about how visitors identify and “see themselves" in the interpretation we provide them with, and how museums might work harder to find ways to model inquiry and paths to learning.

Regarding the videos' length, which ranged from 3 to 7 minutes, 25 answered that the videos were too long. This was a smaller number than we had expected, given the received wisdom from years of audio guides that 2 minutes was as long as any in-gallery, mobile media experience should be. It has made us wonder whether listeners' engagement is higher and tolerance for length greater when the format is not a monologue. A number of people (14 of 100) also found the videos distracting. These responses require more research comparing audio-only conversations versus video, shorter versus longer formats, and Web-based interpretive resources versus in-gallery ones.

The evaluation was somewhat flawed by issues common to the experimental nature of the project: audio quality varied from video to video, since this was the majority's first effort, and people commented irritably about it; iTunes only accepted the application midway through the evaluation, so the survey only captures a small number of visitors who downloaded the application; and not all speakers introduced themselves fully at the beginning of the video, making it difficult for us to correlate the complaints about "expertise" with specific videos or speakers.


The workshop had a profound impact on the Museum and the larger educational community, in ways that were both immediate and obvious and more subtle and long-term. Only two docents participated in the workshop, but those two were so impressed with the experience that they talked widely about it, and others soon clamored for another workshop. A docent who was in the workshop began experimenting with public tours led by two docents in conversation, to see if that sparked more conversation among visitors, and freed them up to talk and ask questions. Those experiments led in turn to a dedicated seminar for a broad group of docents on "conversations about art;" it includes both readings and lots of time practising conversations in the galleries, and culminates in the production of dozens of new videos on the Museum's acclaimed collection of American paintings from the 1930s. Docents will also edit those videos, and make them available on the docent's dedicated Web site.

Faculty in the community, on learning about the workshop and watching the videos, took a great interest in the idea, and began experimenting freely with how to use and create conversations based on the museum's collections in their college classes. Portland State University faculty Sarah Wolf Newlands took it one step further and in Fall 2009 designed her freshman inquiry class entirely on the Museum's Native American collection and asked students to stage and produce their own conversation about an object as their final requirement. Their videos will be made available for students and docents and the university. Newlands also surveyed the students, many of who were deeply impacted by the experience and described "falling in love" with works of art and museum-going in a way they never had before because of it. Both the student and docent experiments have raised the question for the Museum as to how we make available the products of these "amateur" efforts. This, of course, is part of the larger question museums are struggling with, as people take content production and distribution tools into their own hands.

Key curators and educators began collaborating on the production of a special exhibition tour, using conversation as its foundation. A series of conversations between curators, scholars, educators, and artists has been recorded and produced in-house, and then delivered by way of the iphone application. For the first time in the Museum’s history, media-based interpretation for a special exhibition will not be produced by an audioguide company nor delivered on proprietary devices. That tour launches in February 2010. And with the evaluation now complete, the Museum plans to record more conversations around permanent collection objects for the iphone and Web platforms, and make those available to the public.

The ability to create and produce media ourselves despite cramped budgets has tremendously boosted confidence among key education staff. A significant part of one educator's job has become video editing, and the institution’s commitment to this model has required new thinking about distribution, device maintenance, etc. that are ongoing.

Smarthistory in turn is actively seeking more partnerships with museums to further develop how it can be a resource for museum-based learning. And we are seeking funding for evaluation that specifically looks at the videos' effect on visitors' own conversations. Do people talk more or differently about what they see in the galleries after watching the videos? And is that effect different from that of other interpretive strategies such as a single-speaker audiovisual presentations, or question-based labels or panels?

More subtly, the culture in the Museum has shifted. Curatorial and education departments began a series of monthly brown-bag lunches to sustain the conversation around interpretation and projects. And the delight in looking and talking in the galleries that all workshop participants remarked on as one of its greatest effects has yielded a series of ad-hoc plans among docents, curators, and educators to visit the galleries together to sketch, talk, and think. That renewed appreciation has surfaced in programs for the public as well, that experiment with meditation in the galleries, drawing, and "slow looking." We all seem to have remembered better why we wanted to work in a museum in the first place, and to seek a return to the pleasure of looking, thinking, and talking that daily responsibilities often crowd out.

Appendix 1

Museum educators and docents conducted its intercept survey from November 6th to December 30th 2009, during the afternoon, every day of the week. Key questions and responses from the Intercept survey are as follows:

Which of the following statements best describes your experience with watching the videos? (Check all that apply)

a. The videos helped me to appreciate the artwork more. (55 checked)

b. The videos gave me a deeper understanding of the artwork (61 checked)

c. The videos had no effect on my experience. (4 checked)

d. The videos distracted from my experience. (14 checked)

e. The videos were too long (25 checked)

f. The videos were too short (1 checked)

The Museum decided to make these videos as conversations rather than recording one expert talking about the work of art. Did you like or dislike the conversation format? Why?

Like (27 checked)

Dislike (11 checked)

Ok/neutral (5 checked)

Some of them (6 checked)


Burnham, R. (1994). “If you don’t Stop, You don’t See Anything". Teachers College Record 95, 520-525.

Mayer, Melinda M. "Scintillating Conversations". In P. Villeneuve (Ed.), From Pe riphery to Center, Art museum education in the 21st century. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.

Proctor, N. (2009). Museum Podcasts: A Dialogue. Museum Mobile: Media & Technology on the Go. Available, consulted January 31, 2010.

Proctor, N. (2009). Art is Hard: How Mobile Can Help. Museum Mobile: Media & Technology on the Go. Available, consulted January 31, 2010.

Samis, P. (2007). “Visual Velcro: Hooking the Visitor". Museum News, 57-62, 68-73. Available:, consulted March 13, 2010.

Cite as:

Harris, B. et al., Educators, Curators and Docents: Creating Interpretive Resources based on Conversation. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted