February 20, 2013  |  Behind the Scenes, Events & Programs
From Idea to Pilot to Program: Roving Gallery Guides at MoMA

Back in the fall of 2012, I wrote a post highlighting the Roving Gallery Guide initiative piloted by the Department of Education staff last summer. Recently, MoMA’s freelance educators completed their own interventions. Since October 2012, one roving intervention was facilitated per week, typically by a pair of educators. Everyone involved learned a great deal, not only about the works of art each intervention focused on, but also about our visitors.

According to an online survey of visitors following their in-gallery experience, 97% characterized their experience as “memorable.” For many, the unexpected nature of these interventions and the unique qualities of the experience stuck with them. As one visitor commented, “I still think about the time I spent listening to and speaking with the Roving Gallery Guide. I have visited a few museums in my 60 years. Docents’ talks are always lecture style. This was different and interesting.”

Almost everyone who completed the survey felt that the initiative should become a permanent program at MoMA. One visitor explained, “it’s really nice to share our thoughts and hear other peoples’ thoughts in a very instructive way. It makes the art that you are appreciating more clear to you.”

Examining the data collected during the survey, it was clear that while all of the interventions had successful elements, three in particular stood out as particularly engaging for participants across generations.

MoMA Roving Gallery Guides testing "So You Want to Be an Educator?" with visitors. Photo: TK

MoMA Roving Gallery Guides testing “So you want to be a MoMA educator?” with visitors. All photos by Jackie Armstrong

“So you want to be a MoMA educator?” was perhaps the most successful of all of interventions because it became completely visitor-driven. Educators casually asked visitors for fresh perspectives and talking points for a proposed tour they were putting together in the fourth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries. Visitors took this task very seriously, not only offering new perspectives and pointing out things in the works on view, but also directing educators to works they thought should be included in the tour. Educators held back their knowledge in this intervention and relied on the curiosity and diverse experiences of visitors to help create a tour. When visitors guided them to Sigmar Polke’s Spiderman, the educators felt as though they had “struck gold” because of how effortlessly conversation seemed to flow.

Performing Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit scores in Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant Garde enabled visitors to make sense of a challenging exhibition in a collaborative way. The performative work facilitated by educators helped visitors to connect to some of the ideas in the exhibition. For many it was a chance to understand and participate in performance art, which by nature is ephemeral, and it enabled them to connect with one another.

MoMA Roving Gallery Guides performing Yoko Ono's Grapefruit scores in Tokyo, 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde. Photo: TK

Performing Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit scores with visitors in Tokyo, 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde

The educator-led touch tour in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries could easily have been just a simple “you’re touching a work of art” experience, but what made this intervention particularly successful, was the educators’ adept balance of letting visitors enjoy the rare experience of touching a work of art, providing relevant information, and engaging in conversation. Asking visitors what it felt like touching the sculpture, in some cases guiding visitors’ hands, and then following up with questions related to how visitors felt about the opportunity all helped to create meaningful connections. Even the security guards encouraged other visitors to take part and helped translate the responses of visitors who did not speak English as a first language.

A touch tour in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries

An educator-led touch tour in the Painting and Sculpture Galleries

At a meeting to review the initiative last week, one thing was abundantly clear: Roving Gallery Guide interventions will continue to occur in the galleries at MoMA. If you should encounter one of these interventions, let us know what you think!