There seems to be a trend among museums in the Philadelphia area which sees value in the perspectives of non-traditional guides and voices. I have written about the Jawnty tours provided at the Barnes Foundation and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology using Iraqi and Syrian refugees as guides to the Middle East galleries.
Today on Hyperallergic there was a story about how people have been looking to a security guard at University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art for her perspective.
The guard, Linda Harris, has been working at the museum since 2002. When she first started working there, she was apprehensive about whether she belonged there. Now she serves as a friendly face that facilitates discussions about a style of art some people can have difficulty relating to.
[Artist Alex Da Corte,] … notes that Harris’s dual roles, as an authority figure and as a non-traditional educator, allow her to help the museum stay true to its “Free for All” mission statement. Beyond free admission, the museum seeks to be a space where anyone from any community can come and have an experience with contemporary art. Harris represents the position that you don’t need to know everything about a work of art to comment on what it’s doing or how it makes you feel.
The article says Harris also embodies the role of educator and authority figure by providing permission and encouragement to visitors who encounter the interactive exhibitions. This has been especially valuable in cases where the permission to touch wasn’t explicit and required active encouragement.
However, people haven’t always welcomed the insights of a security guard. Over the years, it appears there may have been a shift in visitor expectations about the experience as well as Harris’ ability to discuss works with them.
Robert Chaney…remembers early visitors complaining: “We wanted it to be a quiet visit and a security officer kept talking to us.” Now, he says, people come in specifically “to talk to Linda, and to see what she has to say within the context of an exhibition.”
Chaney recognizes the value of Harris’s presence: “A contemporary art space can be intimidating for people. It’s often not work that’s easily defined or easily understood. […] And so Harris attends our training sessions for docents. And she talks to the artists often. I think she’s able to be, if not an authority, a welcome, informed voice for people coming in.”
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