“A Ringling Museum Docent’s Story: When a Tour is More than a Tour” by Pamela Beck

To a young and sensitive child, artistically inclined, a trip to the dramatically beautiful John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is the stuff of dreams.

ARTdart: There are as many ways to think about art as there are to create it. Join Pamela Beck in her column, ARTdart, as she explores and considers the different perspectives that define the art world.

Pamela Beck

by Pamela Beck

To a young and sensitive child, artistically inclined, a trip to the dramatically beautiful John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is the stuff of dreams. Recently a docent who works there shared with me an unusual experience she had while giving a tour. She had taken her group, which included a thirteen year old boy visiting the museum with his parents for the first time, through the elegant unfolding of exquisite and ornate rooms that comprise the Renaissance, Old Master, Baroque and Modern painting galleries.

“This young boy caught my attention right away,” the docent told me. “His eyes sparkled with intelligence and his excitement was contagious. I usually pose questions to the group as we walk through the galleries, as a way to explore the collection further. That boy, Michael, was always the first to answer them. “

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472-1553). Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome in his Study, 1526. Mixed media on wood. 114.9 x 78.9 cm (45 1/4 x 31 1/16 in.). © John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota

Michael liked Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as Saint Jerome.” When the docent asked the group to find the decorative element that appeared in both this painting and the gallery, Michael quickly pointed to the mermaid chandelier with the antlers overhead.

When the docent asked the group which painting best embodies the Renaissance ideals of harmony, symmetry and perspective, as shown through architecture? Michael gestured animatedly towards Piero di Cosimo’s “The Building of a Palace,” where the two wings of the building are identical.

Cosimo, Piero di (1462-1521), “The Building of a Palace”, Renaissance, (Early Italian, “Quattrocento”), Oil on wood, © John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota

When the docent explained the concept of “vanitas” (painted images symbolizing the transience of life, pleasure and inevitability of death) and asked which elements symbolize a transition from one state to another in “Still life with Parrots” by Jan Davidsz de Heem? Michael immediately pointed to the falling lemon peel and upended platter of food spilling to the floor.

The museum’s elegant loggia similarly inspired Michael, who noticed and wondered why the antique columns lining the garden courtyard were of different sizes. “The Ringlings shipped them back from Italy to be incorporated into the museum in some to-be-determined manner,” the docent explained. Michael was fascinated by how this was eventually done: designing bases of different heights and connecting them by arches on top, both of which allowed the columns to balance out their discrepancies and look the same at first glance.

It wasn’t just the docent who was surprised and impressed by the enthusiasm and intelligence of such a young boy. As the tour continued, the docent noticed that the group began to wait and see what Michael would say and where he would point, as if their own appreciation was amplified by witnessing Michael’s curiosity and genuine interest. In this way, the group not only had the pleasure of viewing the art collection, but was also reminded of why people visit museums in the first place: to feel the excitement, pleasure and sense of discovery that Michael did while looking at art and learning about it.

After the tour came to an end, Michael approached the docent by himself. “Thank you so much for such an interesting tour. I’ll never forget it.”

“Thank you for being such an important part of it,” the docent replied, moved by both Michael’s manners and earnest comments. “Have a good life, Michael; I’m sure you will,” the docent added, looking into the clear eyes of someone who was well on his way.

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8 thoughts on ““A Ringling Museum Docent’s Story: When a Tour is More than a Tour” by Pamela Beck”

  1. Nice story, we need more Michaels and great parents that educate him and bring him
    to expand his knowlage . To have a great docents that recognizes young child curiosity is also
    memmory for him for ever……

  2. the reactions of the children were the best part of being a volunteer with the Ringling Museum’s Family Programs.

  3. This is a wonderful example of why we can appreciate becoming child like in our enjoyment of life rather than letting the baggage that inevitably accumulates from living way us down. This article makes a strong case for the need both museums and listening to children to return to that state.

  4. What a great story! What a pleasure it must have been for the docent to have such a young child who was interested in the art at the museum. To bad there aren’t more young people who feel the same way.

  5. How lovely. My daughter heard a symphony orchestra for the first time at 13 and committed to study music and play it for a living. It can happen.

  6. Pamela,
    I love those paintings! It’s interesting that the art the young boy liked appeals equally to the unschooled and the sophisticated scholar…though the more one knows, the more layers of meaning and skill are apparent, of course. I also remember the first time I saw some paintings and the initial experience still resonates.
    Lovely story,
    (ps : and I think that particular docent has devoted a great deal of her time bringing art to others…thanks Yvette)

  7. I am curently writing a comment while on vacation in New England. I say this only because I too am visiting many different types of “museums” on Cape Cod, from the dust filled antique or book shops to restored sea captains’ homes to a fine art collection of Cape Cod artists at the Cape Cod Art Museum. What inspires me is the love of the hunt to find within each of these spaces something that amazes in its uniqueness of “its time” as well as getting a glimpse of its meaning, use and craft. I believe these experiences of viewing these objects d’art, where ever they are seen, add context to our history of understanding man… and hopefully new insight into creating art in today’s context.

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