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Teaching with Art:

Confessions of a Museum Guide

Medieval studies major and public history minor Kristina Bush ’17 shares her experience as a participant in MHCAM’s new Student Guide Program. Reflecting on two semesters of weekly meetings at the Museum, field trips, research, and tour training, Kristina writes, “I feel as if I have found my place at Mount Holyoke in the Student Guide Program.” 

March 31, 2016
Kristina Bush

Confessions of a Museum Guide: A Behind the Scenes Look at the MHCAM Student Guide Program

Standing in the lobby of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum on a recent Saturday, I looked around me at the familiar and unfamiliar faces, took a deep breath, and began my Sightlines tour, “Visualizing the Sacred.” Public speaking has never come easily to me. I get nervous, I shake, and I stutter…or, at least I used to. Participating in MHCAM’s Student Guide Program has taught me not only how to be confident when speaking publicly, but also how to look at, interpret, and teach about art.

Clara Gorman '18 workshops her Sightlines tour, "Picturing Gender," while other student guides observe.

What drew me to the Student Guide Program was the opportunity to explore and express my own interests. In conceiving our tours, each student dug into a personal interest or passion. My tour is about how different cultures depict religious ideas or characters. I was able to choose works that intrigued me, study them in depth, and build my tour around them. I learned a lot in the process about a number of religious traditions. For example, I learned about artistic expression in Daoism and the artist-scholar in Chinese courtly culture. In this way, my Sightlines tour is truly about my experience in the Museum, and I love that I get to share a piece of myself with the visitors when I present it.

I always look forward to Fridays, when the program meets, but not for the usual reasons. I actually want to go to class! We begin each session by looking closely at an object in the Museum. We all gather around a work of art and sit silently, just taking it in for a minute. Then we come together and discuss what we noticed and what conclusions we can draw about the work of art and the story it tells. My favorite work that we’ve looked at together is Coriolanus Taking Leave of his Wife to Join the Volscians in their Attack upon Rome by Etienne Aubry. I did not know anything about the story of Coriolanus before this session, and I enjoyed discussing the painting with my fellow student guides and figuring out the narrative based on the imagery, the figures’ gestures and expressions, and the composition. Even with art I’ve looked at before in the Museum, I always end up finding something new during the guide sessions.

MHCAM Student Guides at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From left to right: Chrissy Barney FP '16, Kristina Bush '17, Olivia Barry '16, Rand Abu Al-Sha'r '18, and Rebecca Grossman '18.

After our close looking exercise, we meet with a Museum staff member who tells us about his or her work. From this, we can learn both about careers in the museum field and also get tips on giving tours. I always observe how the staff member asks questions to the audience because this is a difficult skill to master when giving a tour. Then, the student guides workshop parts of their tours. Practicing my tour with the other guides and hearing the other guides give their tours is very helpful. It has helped me gain confidence in public speaking and I find the other guides’ feedback invaluable.

I can’t stress enough how incredible it has been working with the other student guides. This program was great for me not just because of its structure, but because of the other people involved. I feel as if I have found my place at Mount Holyoke in the Student Guide Program. The guides are so supportive and encouraging of each other. I have never felt so much a part of a community as I do when I am in the Museum with the other guides. The camaraderie has helped me build my confidence in public speaking. One of my favorite moments was when I was workshopping my Adoration of the Shepherds tour stop, and another student guide, Khadija Ahmed ’16, asked me a challenging question about why Jesus was naked. I was not sure of the answer, but fellow guide Chrissy Barney FP ’16 had insights into the question that I had never considered. She related Jesus’ nudity to the moment of Original Sin, when Adam and Eve realize that they are naked. The connection between these two Biblical stories suggested that Jesus is portrayed naked to visually indicate his freedom from sin. Because of Khadija’s great question and Chrissy’s thoughtful answer I learned something new about the painting and was able to incorporate the information into my tour stop. This is just one of the many ways we all support each other and contribute to each other’s tours.

Participating in the MHCAM Student Guide Program was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’ve experienced so much personal growth because of this program and I can see the effects of it in the other classes I’m taking. And at the end of my public tour, when everyone was clapping for me, I didn’t feel proud or relieved. I was thankful for the friends that I’ve made along the way who helped to shape the tour and my experience. And most of all, I wanted to do it again. 

-Kristina Bush '17