Docent Days

The St.Claire and the Artblog are ecstatic to present the 16 finalists of the New Art Writing Challenge. The challenge generated over 70 unique pieces of writing all examining and engaging art in Philadelphia. Thanks to all those who participated and thanks to our jurors — Hrag Vartanian, Abigail Satinsky and Nell McClister.  Below is Suzanne Maruska’s finalist entry in the 1000 Words or Less category covering Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals at the Fabric Workshop Museum


(IMAGE: Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, 2014. Re-configured acrylic lecterns and dinosaur bones. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artists. In collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.”)

“But where’s the fabric?” This phrase floats across the gallery to where I stand surrounded by cretaceous dinosaur bones perched on outrageously positioned plexiglass lecterns. Where is the fabric indeed? It’s not here, I can tell you that much.

We all agree that the name of the museum is confusing. And it’s easy to assume something is a certain way without doing any research to discover facts. These visitors are already disappointed that what they thought was a fabric museum is merely a world renowned, free contemporary art museum with a history of screen printing on fabric and an educational program that teaches just that. And no matter how complete and engaging of a tour I have given these guests, they will never forgive me that their expectations were not met. This is my life as a museum docent.

I am caught in a perfect storm of tourists, students and everyone else that washes up on the steps of the Philadelphia convention center. Whether they are looking for the entrance to the parking garage next door, change for parking meters, a public restroom or an art museum, I am the person they talk to when they walk through that door.

Playing throughout the first floor is audio of breath intakes and sounds that recall gagging and choking. Visitors have asked me more than once if the track is from a porno. But no, these sounds are from the Drexel University sound library and they are breaths that usually get muted in vocal recordings during editing. The breaths resound in the first floor gallery space, where a small fragment of rock dangles from the ceiling on a single strand of monofilament. Unassuming at first, the viewer is hit with the story of the rock: it’s 4.5 billion years old. The visitor has to take my word for it. That rock could have been scooped out of the Schuykill River last summer for all I know. But in this space I am the authority and what I say is assumed to be true. This rock is also the focal point of thirteen minute long performances that happen three times a day in which three performers whistle and gasp at the special rock and use their breath to make it spin like a pendulum. Each performance has to be monitored by a docent, whether there are visitors present or not.

When we reach the eighth floor gallery, I might be asked, “Are these real dinosaur bones?” “Yes.” I answer. “What species are they from?” “All different ones, I don’t know specifics.” “Why aren’t there signs saying what they are?” “Because they aren’t meant to be experienced in that way, ma’am.” And this demand for information is often from guests who put up a fight from the very beginning. Not all visitors are keen on being forced to take a guided tour, and often they walk out without seeing anything. The nerve of an institution having rules that must be followed to experience what it has to offer. But when you are being given an amazing free service and you still complain about not being able to wander around the galleries by yourself, that’s when you are in danger of getting the short and sweet tour. Disrespect the docent and you are missing out on what could be a pleasant experience for us all.

It’s not easy to convince others to be engaged with work that you are indifferent towards yourself. But I do my best. The work on the second floor gallery is a film about sixteen minutes long that I frequently confess is my favorite part of the exhibition. This is my safe place. A pitch-black gallery where Puerto Rican parrots squack and mechanical sounds resound and where I can take a break from my song and dance for even just a few minutes.

Now I sit here at my usual perch at the front desk in silence. The gagging is gone. No more choking sounds fill the gallery space. The galleries are closed for de-installation and I am in my happy place. No more bones, no more rock, no more thrice daily performances that make figuring out a visitor services lunch schedule more like solving a Sudoku puzzle. Though I will really miss those parrots.

Suzanne Maruska is a visual artist with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD. She is a lover of animals, korean cooking, ceramics and knitting.

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