One of the thrilling aspects of being a gallery guide at Crystal Bridges is learning new things about the artwork from the museum guests. When I told a visitor what I knew about the flying squirrel in John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr.—that it was a common pet in colonial America and symbolized (to my surprise) obedience—he told me that flying squirrels actually make docile pets. His stepfather used to catch them and sell them as pets in North Carolina.
On another tour, when I asked guests what abstract patterns they saw in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Small Purple Hills, a five year old observed that the veined pattern in the hills looked very much like the veined pattern of the tobacco leaf in O’Keeffe’s Feather and Brown Leaf hanging beside it. I incorporate these observations and others like them into my tours.
After my husband and I retired from college teaching careers in Oklahoma, we moved to Northwest Arkansas largely because of Crystal Bridges and the thriving arts community here. I knew that I wanted to volunteer as a gallery guide as soon as I learned of the opportunity. The program required nine months of training and a series of tests and appraisals. One thing that deeply impressed me was Crystal Bridges’ commitment to interactive education. We don’t just tell guests about the artists and works, as traditional docents do. We try to engage them in the experience of art.
We encourage our guests to look closely, often by asking questions. “What colors do you see?” “What can you tell about the person portrayed—her social class? her age? her attitude?” “Is nature in this landscape protective or threatening? bleak or serene?”
Open to everyone, tours are offered daily at 2:30 and on Wednesday evenings at 7:30. The one-hour tour provides the opportunity to discuss six to eight artworks from various periods in American history. By getting people to really look at the art and by educating them about the history behind certain works, we hope they will engage more fully with other works in the museum.
I always enjoy the opportunity to share my excitement for the Crystal Bridges collection, but I most love the tours when guests teach me to see the art in a whole new light.