The Dialogic Dance

March 16, 2015 General Musings

I confess that the first time I heard the term dialogic my first thought was that it had something to do with logical dialing. Of course no one dials: we click, tap or mouse over, but we don’t dial anything anymore. Dialogic has nothing to do with dialing. It means dialogue and in the context of museums this means creating opportunities to have conversations between visitors, with a docent or even with an electronic guide. I look forward to a future in which I can interact with a digital tour program, much as I interact with the audio help program on my computer. Ok, I’d like it to work better than the Dragon program in my Windows 8 operating system, but it will in the future I imagine.

I’m not disavowing the importance of human to human interaction, but for all the technical challenges inherent in developing a robust dialogic audio guide, the challenges of training and supporting docents to engage in conversations with visitors are far greater.

Conversation should come naturally. We talk to each other all the time. Yet, effective dialogue remains as elusive in the museum context as it does around the dinner table. I’ve been pondering these challenges for the past few weeks, especially after my conversations with Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City and co-author of The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums and Nick Gray, CEO of Museum Hack. Both these discussions reminded me that being an effective tour guide or docent takes courage. Conversations are unpredictable. Being in conversation means listening and responding to what is being said rather than sticking to a predetermined script. It can be scary not to know what’s coming next. It is the ultimate improv.

We often select tour guides based on their personal interest and knowledge in the subject matter. We want them to convey their enthusiasm for the subject and often this enthusiasm is enough at the beginning. But over time, say after giving the same tour of an historic house fifty times, enthusiasm wanes. Tour guides complain that visitors ask the same questions, they give the same answers. Everyone is dancing, but no one is inspired by the beat. Nick Gray talks about casting calls to select tour guides. Good actors have learned how to regain their passion no matter how many times they have done the play. Tour guides don’t have to be actors, but learning acting skills could help. Another acting skill–improvisation–teaches how to react to what is happening in the moment and let go of a desire for perfection. Conversational improvisation is not perfect. It can be funny, quirky, and even fall flat, but it is offers a better chance for creating honest connections between a museum and its audience than scripted interaction. This article in Art Museum Teaching provides some good tips on creating environments that are conducive to dialogue.

I have recently begun to apply the acting training that I have had to my workshops and presentations. Most importantly, I have stopped using power point presentations and lecterns. Both were preventing me from speaking with instead of to my audience. I still have notes. I know the information I’d like to share, but I’m more aware of how that information leads into conversation. Let’s keep dancing.