University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art relaunches docent program

As the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art looks ahead to its reopening at a new location in fall 2022, the museum seeks new volunteers for its docent program.


Ryan Adams

The Stanley Art Museum construction site is seen on the University of Iowa campus on Thursday, September 17, 2020. According to the University of Iowa website for the museum, construction began in 2019 and is slated for completion in winter of next year.

Hunter Koontz, Arts Reporter

In preparation for the new Stanley Museum opening next fall, museum staff are looking to take on new members in its relaunched docent program.

Docentship entails volunteer work at the museum as well as trips to local schools, where docents will educate students about the museum’s collection and potentially showcase various pieces. Stanley’s Associate Curator of Education, Joshua Siefken, said that docents will primarily take on the role of tour guide, with different tours and lessons in mind for both children and an older general public.

“They are community ambassadors… they are telling the community what the university has to offer, what the museum has to offer,” Siefken said.

Siefken said anyone — including undergraduates — with formal or informal experience teaching K-12 can apply.

Museum Director Lauren Lessing said that ideal applicants should be passionate about the arts.  One of the perks of the position, she said, is the field trips, which include going to locations like the Des Moines Arts Center and other art institutions throughout Iowa.

Through their training and volunteer work, docents will learn about various pieces of art in the Stanley Museum’s collection and be educated on contemporary art history pedagogy.

Training will require a commitment of two hours per month over a year-long period, after which newly certified docents will be able to contribute the same amount of time each month volunteering at the museum and in the local community.

Stanley museum staff are currently planning to conduct training sessions over Zoom in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and university guidelines. Siefken said that he’s hopeful about seeing a transition to in-person meetings over the summer, but that, for now, the museum is taking “an abundance of caution.”

Siefken said that being a docent won’t look exactly the same as it did in 2008.

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“Educational theory, ways of teaching, ways of engaging audiences, have changed a lot. In addition to that, we find out more about artworks… every year,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same things they talked about 12, 13 years ago.”

Lessing said educators are encouraged to ask children about what they’re seeing and how it connects to what they’re learning in class.

“In the last 15 years, museum education has really moved to an inquiry-based model,” she said. “Instead of talking, talking, talking at kids, we are asking questions.”

Lessing talked about a future university student docent group and the importance of having a physical building for children to visit.

“There are a lot of studies that show that if you can get kids out of the classroom and have them in a novel environment where they’re immersed, they learn more,” Lessing said. “I’m sure you remember field trips you took as a kid. Those are special experiences.”

Lessing said that she wants the new museum to support not just UI art history courses but classes across the curriculum, as the museum’s collection can serve as a vital resource for study and interaction with primary sources and objects for students in many fields.

With the docent program relaunch, the department hopes to have museum staff and volunteers poised to educate and bring in new members of the community in 2022.

Elizabeth Wallace, Stanley’s manager of communications, marketing, and membership, called the reopening a “milestone for the campus.”