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Dowling: Guided Tours

As a tour guide at Shelburne Museum I’ve learned a few things about art and about people’s connection to it. For example, I’ve discovered that most people, no matter where they’re from, don’t know much about American art. If pressed, they can come up with names like Andrew Wyeth or Andy Warhol, but many are unaware of the myriad artists and styles that collectively tell the story of our country, its people, and our values.

I’ve also learned that a serious first encounter with American painting can be a marvelous thing.

American art encompasses both the primitive and the sophisticated. Its influences include European portraiture and pastoral landscapes. Its purpose and impact are varied. From pious determination to post-war metaphor, American paintings can evoke a mythic nostalgia that we all still tap into - especially those of us in New England.

All season long, Shelburne’s Painting a Nation exhibit has been opening eyes and minds by telling the modern viewer the story of who we were, how we saw ourselves, and how we wanted to be remembered.

In fact, in the portrait gallery I was intrigued by all of the eyes gazing at me through the centuries direct and determined--and not one face has been beautified for posterity.

While working in this exhibit, I noticed that people who took the guided tour generally had at least three things in common: curiosity, humility, and a modicum of courage.

Visitors who choose to take a guided tour are generally prepared to listen with an open mind; to see through new, more focused eyes; and to access memories and ideas that allow them to connect the art and artifacts they encounter to their own modern lives. They want to learn, and are willing to admit they don’t already know everything.

But beyond curiosity and humility, putting yourself in the hands of a tour guide takes a certain amount of courage - not only because you’ll be learning in public, but because there are really quite a few variables involved.

Most of us have been on tours where we realized within the first two minutes that we’d made a mistake. Perhaps the guide was bland, pedantic, spoke like an automaton, or was trying too hard to impress... People are generally too nice to walk away in those circumstances, and I’ve dutifully followed a less-than-stellar leader on a long, mediocre tour a few times, too.

On the other hand, I’ve also been to places where I wished for someone nearby with the knowledge and personality to illuminate things for me – to help me see, think, and understand on a deeper level.

Museum and travel experiences are made richer by thoughtful exhibitions and knowledgeable guides who care about the visitor experience, especially when accompanied by other curious people willing to learn.

Leora Dowling is a public speaking and communications teacher and consultant.
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