Developing a theme

A theme is a connecting thread you weave through your tour. For your audience, a theme provides a framework to the tour, assisting them in processing the information received and their own impressions of the artworks. In effect, you are creating a lens through which to view the art and imbuing the art with additional meaning.

Themes can be broad or focused. For example, the Art Adventure sets have very broad themes, such as Amazing Animals in Art or Cultural Reflections in Art, allowing you to substitute other works more easily if a work in the set goes off view. Themes also can be focused. For example, you might think of a broad topic such as Nature. For an adult tour, a focused theme might be how the natural world inspired 20th-century artists. For a tour with younger students on that same topic, a theme could be focused on insects, perhaps titled “Crawling with Bugs,” where you could look at the symbolism of insects in art as well as materials used (such as silk and dye).

Having a focus to your tour is an important part of developing an inclusive experience. Everyone is entering into the tour with a unique set of personal expectations, and a theme helps create a shared expectation, such as “Today we’ll be exploring how modern artists were inspired by the natural world.” At each stop, visitors will think of ways to make connections to that theme; following the visit, the theme helps visitors recall the group’s discussion and object information.

In developing a theme, some docents or guides first think of the artworks they would like to include, then try to find a common thread between those works. Others think first of the theme, then find the art to fit within it. No matter which way you develop your tour, keep the theme focused and clear for setting that shared expectation.

Tip: Docents and guides recommend sharing ideas of themes with each other, especially creative approaches to the collection. For example, one docent used a theme of “blue” on her tour, not only in thinking of color, but also other ways in which that word is defined or understood. Ideas for tour themes are posted on the volunteers’ website, under Research Resources/Tour Topics and Themes/Shared Tour Outlines as well as in Tour Descriptions.