Museum Docents' Understanding of Interpretation

Open Access
Neill, Amanda Crystal
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 09, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Dr Ed Taylor, Dissertation Advisor
  • Edward W Taylor, Committee Chair
  • Elizabeth Jean Tisdell, Committee Member
  • Robin Veder, Committee Member
  • George W Boudreau, Committee Member
  • hermeneutics
  • interpretation
  • docents
  • museum
  • symbolic interactionism
The purpose of this qualitative research study was to explore docents’ perceptions of their interpretive role in art museums and determine how those perceptions shape docents’ practice. The objective was to better understand how docents conceive of their role and what shapes the interpretation they give on tours to the public. The conceptual frameworks that informed the study were hermeneutics and symbolic interactionism. Hermeneutical principles lend themselves well to understanding how docents act as messengers of meaning and translate concepts to tour-goers. Symbolic interactionism captured the symbiotic nature of the interpretive process carried out on tours, as docents’ perceptions and role changes as a result of time, experience, and interactions with tour-goers. The study offers a view into the world of volunteer adult educators who work in the nonformal education setting of museums. Trained by the museum and responsible for educating museum visitors, tour-goers are entrusted with docents to learn about museums’ collections on walking tours through the galleries. Utilizing a basic interpretive research design, the study offers understanding into how educators teach in nonformal settings, explains about how tours vary by docent, helps docent trainers and museum administrators understand how docents perform interpretation, and offers two conceptual frameworks for future research in the field of interpretation. Data collection was completed through observation and semi-structured interviews. Fourteen participants came from four different art museums in northeastern United States. The study contributes to the fields of adult education, museum education, and interpretation. First, participants delivered an individualized tour that demonstrated their dedication to their role and to the institution. Second, docents threw light upon foreign objects or made them clear to tour-goers in a number of ways. Third, docents projected their horizon of meaning based on a number of tour-goer related factors in an effort to create a tailored educational interaction. Fourth, the outcomes docents hoped to achieve for themselves and tour-goers were described. Findings speak to the purposefulness of these adult educators in interpreting art objects to tour-goers. The theoretical frameworks do not completely explain the intentional actions docents made to solicit reactions by and engagement with tour-goers. Participants demonstrated the theory of constructivism on tours, but some interpretive techniques from the transmission model of learning, such as storytelling, were practiced. The unbounded nature of the content may explain some of the constructivist tendencies. The current model of nonformal education could be expanded.