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By Karen Herland
The woman standing in front of the tiny, red-saturated canvas in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) looks a little nervous. But within a few minutes she is animatedly engaging fellow students in a critical discussion of just what the Nude on a Red Sofa might be thinking and what Kees van Dongen likely intended when he painted the brothel worker wearing only jewels and makeup.
Atara Bentob’s presentation is the culmination of two terms of study in CE 2352. This year, the course is co-taught by Anita Grants of Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Linda Goossens, a professional educator at the museum.
Students who take “Becoming a Musem Guide” learn about the MMFA’s collection, but more important, they learn how to present that information as guides for visiting elementary school students, tourists or art undergrads. Grants is responsible for 30 hours of theory related to the collections. Goossens provides 30 hours of museum pedagogy; she is completing her MA in Education. The two trade off weeks over the two-semester course.
The Continuing Education course has been offered every second year for over a decade. Passing it is a requirement for anyone who wishes to apply to the museum as a volunteer guide. The few who are accepted as volunteers must then take another four- or five-day course before they can volunteer at the MMFA.
Bentob was presenting a partial practice run of a tour she had devised herself. The students were asked to thematically link six works in the museum’s collection in a half-hour package tour that would appeal to museum-goers.
As Bentob discusses Nude on a Red Sofa, the artist, Fauvism, and the early 20th century, when the painting was produced, her peers time her and evaluate her every gesture.
The students’ critiques are based on a checklist used to evaluate actual volunteer guides. The students check one another’s vocabulary and body language, and cheer each other on.
Students need to be familiar with the museum’s collection across different periods, styles and works. The training is as pedagogical as it is content-driven, with students evaluating each other on the accessibility of the information and their ability to help their audience connect to challenging or unfamiliar work.
When Jackie Moore introduces her chosen painting, she recalls her own son’s reaction to seeing it for the first time. Diane Russell deftly fits her chosen artist’s personal life and preoccupations into the story his work tells.
Mary McQueen Reidy is semi-retired after raising three sons, working as a nurse and later teaching a new generation of nurses. She said she took the course because she had always been interested in art, but felt uncomfortable and out of place in a museum environment. Now she confidently moves up and down the stairwells of the MMFA’s two buildings, pointing out favourite canvases along the way.