At the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), the docent team is finishing up final preparations to begin offering virtual tours to area students.

Docents help fulfill a museums’ educational objectives, leading students on tours that call them into the works of art and help them tap into their own experiences as they explore the museum’s offerings. In a typical year, the SAMA docents provide educational tours to 10,000 to 15,000 K-12 students from the greater San Antonio area and beyond. 

Now in the middle of a pandemic, with in-person activities still limited, docents find themselves having to rethink and recalibrate their methods. To continue providing quality education to students, docents and education personnel have attended a number of virtual brainstorming and training sessions to prepare for virtual tours. Docents will start leading virtual tours on October 15.

The docent core at SAMA is about 80 strong, with another 12 individuals in the training program. All of the museum’s docents work as volunteers, though docent program manager Tripp Cardiff is employed by the museum within its education department, which includes six full-time staff. 

“Docents tend to skew a little bit older and may not be as familiar with certain aspects of technology,” Cardiff said. But he has been pleased by the positive response to the idea of virtual tours from a docent crew eager to adapt.

Part of the reason for the enthusiasm, Cardiff offered, is that tours were ended by the pandemic back in March, typically a very busy time for the docents, and many have found themselves with a strong “appetite for getting involved again,” for sharing their time and knowledge with students again, however that has to look.

Before the pandemic, tours were conducted in the galleries, with docents physically leading students through the museum, stopping at pre-selected works to discuss and engage. Now, all of that will happen via Zoom.

Geoff Leech, 76, a retired naval officer and environmental engineer, is a seventh-year docent who has acted as the docent president for the past year. He enjoys working as a docent, at least in part, for the challenge of adapting tours to different age groups and different needs. 

He described the shift to virtual touring as posing “no problem at all” to him personally. “In fact,” he said, “I am very enthusiastic – I know it’s going to work.”

Leech said other docents are similarly excited to start up tours again and seem up for the new challenge of doing so virtually.

Cardiff, whose responsibilities include the recruitment and training of new docents, as well as the regular continuing education of current docents, said the volunteer educators “don’t just stand there and lecture,” they strive to provide an engaging experience for visitors.

As such, docent training and continuing education requires that participants learn the history behind objects in the museum and, just as importantly, how to teach the galleries to visitors of all ages.

Cheryl Anderson, 72, a retired educator and college administrator who is currently a docent-in-training at SAMA, said that she wants to be a docent because it combines her interest in art and background as an educator.

Anderson and the other docents-in-training have continued their learning through online sessions, and she said she is looking forward to trying virtual tours.

She said that the docents plan to implement the same instructional strategies in the virtual setting and that she anticipates that maintaining a high level of student engagement, which “can be a problem whether you are virtual or in-person,” will be the main challenge. 

One drawback to the virtual touring model, according to Cardiff, is that students don’t get to share actual space with an object of focus in the museum, to “see it from all angles” and to “really appreciate its size and materiality” and “the way that it speaks with other objects.”

On the plus side, he explained, with a virtual tour, docents can “really focus in on an object, and, with hi-res digital images, we can take a look at details that may not be appreciable in the gallery context.”

Cardiff also sees potential, if this model works well, for continuing to use it to reach students at schools that may not be able to easily make an in-person visit, pandemic conditions aside, due to distance from the museum or transportation limitations.

Ultimately, the goal is to make sure as many students as possible can have this opportunity for engagement with “various expressions of the human experience and of culture.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.