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Student docent program at museum prompts more tours

In the past, students who wanted to get involved with the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art had few options; internships are limited, and regular docent trainings and tours tend to conflict with classes. But now, the museum has launched a new student docent program that trains students as museum tour guides.

The trainings are at times that most students can attend, and student docents recruit their own groups -- usually peers -- and schedule the tours themselves.

Student docents, who can be from any major, are basically teachers, said Jessica Evett-Miller, assistant coordinator of university programs at the museum.

After attending about five hours of training and giving a practice presentation or tour to a member of the education staff, the docents commit to the museum for an academic year, develop a tour outline and are expected to recruit and lead at least three groups in the museum, Evett-Miller said.

The students not only learn the history and operations behind the museum but also various presentation methods. Docents learn to mention how the building -- designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei -- is an artwork in itself. For their tours, students choose a representative five to seven pieces to focus on comprehensively. They also discuss the breadth of the collection, which is especially strong in Asian art, and provide visitors with a historical overview of works from around the world.

"We offer different strategies to engage an audience for discussing works of art," said Evett-Miller. "The docents use the works of art they've chosen to do that." This also allows student docents to become intimately familiar with a selection of works that especially interest them, she added.

"The student docent program allows me to research art and engage in it and come to the museum," said Ronit Spiwak, a senior in the School of Hotel Administration and one of the 11 student docents. Her favorite part of the training, she added, was choosing which artworks she would cover in her tours.

"I like post World War II art, so I have two pieces out of the seven from that era in my tour outline," said Spiwak.

Her first tour was for residents of the Spanish Language House at Alice Cook House.

"The best thing was that they were very enthusiastic and participated a lot during the tour," she said. "At least two people in my tour group had never been to the museum, so it was great to get them in here."

As the program develops, student docents will also be required to develop podcasts to spread their love of art and further their contribution to the educational mission of the Johnson.

For more information about the program, contact Evett-Miller at

Dorothy Chan '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle and a student docent at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

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Blaine Friedlander