INTRODUCTION

Today I’m sharing 7 different ways to refresh your practice for 2023 so you don’t get stuck in a rut. 

Here are a couple of questions for you to think about. 

First of all, it’s the start of the new year. Are you looking forward to designing and leading guided tours, art experiences, educational programmes in 2023?

Perhaps you’re in the middle of a quiet patch and you’re thinking about the new season starting. Are you excited for it? 

If you answered yes to either or both of these questions, then great. You’re in a good place for the year to come. You might also want to take the time now to review some of the suggestions in today’s podcast to see if you can refresh your practice for the coming year. 

If, however, you’re not sure about your answers to those questions, or about how you feel about the coming year, then it’s definitely time to shake things up a little. If you’re feeling tired, jaded or uninspired, then it’s time to make some changes. 

It’s a wonderful thing to do at any time of year, but especially at the start of a new year. Right now is a great time to try out some new things and to refresh your practice. 

If you continue to do things exactly as you did them last year, then you might end up feeling like you’re on auto-pilot, or start feeling a bit restless or even bored of what you do. 

And here’s one reason why it’s important to regularly look at what you do and see if you can refresh your practice a little. 

Your participants can always tell when an educator or guide is going through the motions. 

It’s tempting to stick to the tried-and-tested formula – especially if it worked well last year – but making a few simple changes to your practice and the way you do things might help you to rediscover a passion and enthusiasm for your work. 

And this renewed enthusiasm will of course come across to your participants – and might even be contagious. 

Even if you’re not feeling stuck – perhaps you’re more than happy with the way you do things – you may hear something here that you’d like to try out at some point this year. And your audience will thank you for it!

We have a responsibility to do so much more than just ‘inform’ in our museum and heritage programmes – people want to be surprised, moved, connected, and even transformed. So here are 7 different ways you can refresh your practice for the coming year. 

Let’s get started.

#1 CHOOSE A PRACTICE TO WORK ON

I recently shared a series of emails about the 8 practices of the VTM method. These emails were also intended to inspire and motivate you for the coming year and for you to think about ALL aspects of your practice – your questioning technique, facilitation skills, the time and space you allow for slow looking and how you might fundamentally change your practice with thinking routines.  ⁠I also talked about practice, coaching and developing a reflective practice.

 Each of the 8 practices is an essential component for designing and creating engaging experiences around art and museum objects. ⁠

Some of these practices are focused on the way you interact with your audiences or how you engage with art or objects.

⁠Others are focused on YOU and the way you lead a programme, how you show up and how you develop and grow.

No matter how experienced we are, there will always be an area we can work on. So my first suggestion to you today is to choose one of the 8 practices as your area of focus on this year. Here is the list to choose from:

  1. Slow looking
  2. Questioning
  3. Facilitation
  4. Thinking routines
  5. Collaborative learning
  6. Multimodality
  7. Practice and Coaching
  8. Reflective practice 

So, have a think. Where will you put your energy next year?

Will you decide to focus on making some more space and time for slow looking in your programmes? Or may you’d like to try out a few thinking routines with different groups? Or perhaps you will choose to work on your questioning technique. 

If you’d like help with any of the practices, you can search back through the back catalogue of my podcast and find plenty of advice on all of these subjects. Or you can read books or articles about questioning, facilitation or any of the subjects.

You can also head to my website thinkingmuseum.com and look at all the free resources that will help you with thinking routines and slow looking. Or you might want to choose to do a course with me either live (like my VTMO courses) or recorded (like my Art of Questioning course).

Whatever it is, make your choice and stick to it. Write it on a piece of paper so that you can refer back to it. And go all in on making 2023 the year that you commit to working on one specific aspect of your practice.

Last year I focused on my listening skills (part of facilitation practice) as this is something that I’ve always been fascinated by. It just so happened that I was also starting a coaching certification course and listening was a key part of that. So I got to read lots of books and articles about listening, wrote lots of assignments where I had to reflect on my listening and spent many hours working on my listening skills with coaching clients and in the training courses I run. This year I really want to focus on thinking routines. 

#2 CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE

The second suggestion concerns when you work, how often and with whom. So often, we can feel stuck in a rut perhaps that’s when we’re working longer hours than we want to or we’re working with organisations or groups we’d rather not work with. 

Think about when you work and who you work for.

Imagine your ideal working week. What does it look like? Jot down a few notes about when you would ideally like to be working.

Now compare it to the hours you did last year. If there’s a huge discrepancy, you need to think about setting some boundaries this year. A regular day off, the chance not to work weekends, an afternoon off – whatever works for you, work towards achieving this. It may not be immediately possible but you want to have it as something you’re working towards. If this means reducing your hours, how could you recoup that income elsewhere? 

Plan your schedule and if you can AND BLOCK OUT times you do not want to work so that you can perform at your best for the whole year.

Next, think about who you are working for? If you work for several organisations such as museums, think about your preferences  – which one do you prefer working at? 

Who do you prefer working with? Are you a specialist in an area – either a subject area or with certain types of groups? Can you give preference to an organisation that you like working for or a group or audience you like working with?

If you’re working for yourself, how can you get more of your IDEAL clients? Carve yourself out a niche? Invest in a training course and specialise, specialise, specialise. Become known for your expertise in working with families or for how you engage people in objects and artworks and attract the clients that you want to work with.

#3 CHANGE YOUR ROUTE

When was the last time you walked through the route you take on your guided tours and educational programmes, visiting all the stops or artworks/objects and evaluated it?

The beginning of the year is a great time to take a look at the programmes you regularly do take objectively and try and see them through the eyes of the people you work with. 

I like to do a walk-through of the entire programme and all the stops I usually make, the artworks or objects I regularly visit. 

It makes sense to do this in the order you would do it with your groups. You could also take along a fellow guide or educator to discuss it. 

Take a notebook or camera. Take your time and slow down. Think about each stop.

  • How long does it take to get from one place to the next? Is the route straightforward or complex? Is there another way you could go or an intermediate artwork or object or building you could visit on the way?
  • Think about the distances between stops. Are they reasonable? Too far, too short?
  • If it’s a long time between stops, how could you utilise that time in a way that’s engaging for the group? Give them a question to think about or discuss in pairs as they walk.
  • How do the stops link together? What could you do to ease the transition from one place to another? 
  • Can you swap any of them around to make the tour more cohesive?
  • Can you add a different stop to make the distance less?
  • Look at your programme or tour with fresh eyes. Be critical. What could be improved here?

Take time to look up, down and turn around to see what you’re missing. Try to see your route through the eyes of someone who is seeing it for the first time. Again, look with fresh eyes. 

Then, walk the programme again, but this time try deviating from your usual route. 

  • What new things do you notice? Can you weave any of these new details into your programme? What new things are there to see in the museum or elsewhere that you could incorporate into your route? 
  • NOTE: If your tour route is set by the organisation you work for, give them feedback on anything that you notice en route. Ask them if any changes can be made to the route to make it flow better for you and the participants.

#4 DO AN ARTWORK AUDIT – ADD/EDIT/RETIRE

It’s natural to want to keep doing the same things on our programmes with group after group. We start to feel comfortable and in our stride when we get to know certain artworks or objects really well. But when did you last evaluate the stops on your programmes? 

When you next have 10 minutes to spare, make a list of all the stops you make. Write down where you stand at each stop. Write down how long you usually spend at each stop.

This will help you To  understand how you are using time on your tour or programme. 

TIME: Think about the time you spend at each stop. On average, spend anything from 5-15 minutes at each stop. There are no hard and fast rules to this, but do bear in mind that spending less than 5 minutes at each stop can make the tour feel rushed and lightweight (unless you’re on a super-speedy highlights tour) and conversely, spending longer than 15 minutes in any one place will result in participants starting to shuffle and look away as they lose concentration (unless you’re on a slow-looking tour!). 

PACE: A good tip here is to think about your pace – if you spend 5 minutes at each stop your participants will start to notice and will get restless as they anticipate moving every 5 mins.

Take time to vary the pace throughout the programme taking advantage of the natural ebb and flow of your participants concentration and interest. The middle of the programme is when you can spend a bit longer at one stop as the group will be at their peak – warmed up and fully immersed in the programme. The start and end of the tour require different pacing too. Think about how you can use pace to keep your audience engaged. 

ADD/EDIT/RETIRE: Finally, spend some time thinking about an artwork or object that doesn’t work well on your current programme. Have a think first about ways to improve it:

  • If it’s not a ‘must-see’, maybe you can replace it with something else that works better?
  • Or maybe it’s a case of standing somewhere different so that your participants can see/hear better?
  • Or maybe you can bring along some new materials (laminate/iPad) to enhance understanding of the artwork or object. This works particularly well with historic sites that don’t look like they used to. 
  • Spend some time with the artwork or object, do some slow looking and take along a notebook. Write down your thoughts and what questions bubble up. Or set a timer and brainstorm as many questions as you can about the artwork or object. -this may help to inspire new ways of working with it that you haven’t thought of before. Or it might be a case that you’re asking the wrong questions. Spending time with an artwork or object that you’re not getting on with will help to see if you might be able to approach it in a different way. 
  • If none of these work and you’re still unsure about the artwork, maybe it’s time to put it into retirement and come up with something new. Maybe you can add something new or maybe you can spend longer somewhere else at a place where your audience ARE really engaged, but there is no point keeping revisiting an artwork or object that doesn’t work for you 

#5 SHARE NEW STORIES

For educators and guides, information is never fixed or static. You never arrive at the point where you know everything. There is always more to learn, to find out, to add to your guided tour.

  • So, subscribe to a new blog, read some new articles or watch video clips will help to give inspiration on new pieces of information to share.
  • Maybe you always talk about certain themes on your tour – could you introduce any new ones? Or focus on a certain historical figure? By looking at the themes and stories that you tell, you can start to see if you can make any adjustments so that you are not always talking about the same subjects and people. Stretching yourself to find new information or do new research could be the boost your tour needs.
  • Or you could think about when you’re sharing information. Adopt a more curious and playful attitude to what happens when you share information. See what happens when you share less information. Or when you share it at the beginning or the middle or the end of a discussion. Note what effect this has on your audience, iterate and try something else. Keep experimenting and enjoy using your knowledge as a tool to drive engagement. 

#6 ENCOURAGE INTERACTION

Have you ever found yourself in the same place, at the same time, saying the same thing?

One of the easiest ways to ensure that you never do the same programme or tour twice is to encourage and promote interaction from your participants on your tours and programmes. 

Make this the year you learn new techniques and tools to help you create enjoyable and inspiring discussions on your interactive guided tours. 

Ask open-ended questions or use thinking routines to jump-start discussions and make everyone feel part of the discovery process. 

Encourage everyone to speak by treating everyone’s comments fairly and paraphrasing for others to hear.

Make your participants so curious that they ask YOU questions about what THEY want to know.

Using discussion-based techniques you will never find yourself in the same place, at the same time saying the same thing again. 

#7 AND FINALLY…DON’T DO IT ALONE

In our world, we’re often working alone or in parallel with other educators or guides and our paths rarely cross.

So, get advice from a colleague or talk things over with a fellow guide; shadow someone else’s tour or create a working group of a few docents to workshop new ideas for your programmes together.

Every person you talk to could potentially help you out of your tour rut and freshen up your practice for the coming year. 

Do you have any top tips to share about how you keep things fresh in your programmes? How are you going to revitalise your practice in 2023? I’d love to hear.

If you’re on the lookout for new ideas that you can incorporate into your programmes, don’t forget my new resource How to Look at Art (Slowly). It shares more than 30 different ways to look at art or objects in museums. This guide is for ANYONE who is looking for new ways to engage with what they’re seeing, whether you’re visiting a museum on your own, with friends or family or working with groups. You can get your copy below!

How to look at art slowly