Rogue Docents present morbidly inclined tours
Michelle Layland and Emily Kaplan have spent a combined 14 years standing guard in the galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. If you’ve ever leaned in to get a better look at “Frank” by Chuck Close, there’s a good chance that you have met one of them. What you probably didn’t realize, as they respectfully asked you to take a step back, is that several times a year these unassuming security officers snap off their clip-on ties and become Rogue Docents.
Museum docent is the title given to a tour guide who is trained to educate the
public about a museum’s collection. A Rogue Docent is something altogether less bona fide. Michelle and Emily have been offering unofficial guided
museum tours for nearly two years. The tours are tolerated but not sponsored by the
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and news of them has spread only via word-of-mouth and social media. Largely unscripted, the tours are aimed
at an audience that is either already familiar with or bored by the typical museum docent experience. “Taking a Rogue Docent tour is a lot like getting into a car with an unlicensed taxi driver,” explains Michelle
Layland. “You don’t know where he’ll take you but it will be interesting.”
My first experience with a Rogue Docent was in 2009 for Michelle’s “Count the Decapitations” tour. Freed from her polyester guard jacket, Michelle led our small group around the MIA for the better part of two hours talking about nothing but dismembered heads. By the end of our evening, we had counted
21 beheadings throughout the museum, including a mummy in possession of her own severed head as well as a spare tucked safely between her thighs. Then we had cupcakes.
Michelle Layland formed the idea for Rogue Docent tours as a way to remind
herself of all the things she loved about the museum during times when her
work there was stressful(M DASH) the history of the building, the art, and
stories that were interesting or just plain goofy. Michelle and Emily
spend hours researching and organizing each tour, starting with the
selection of a tour theme. Past tour themes have included “Commodus was a
Great Big Jerk”; “The French Revolution: Big Hair, Big Dress, Big Blade,
Big Mess”; and the guards’ personal favorite, “Haunted / Not Haunted
Halloween Tours,” during which the two argue Mulder and Scully-style over
unexplained phenomena alleged to have occurred inside the museum.
In addition to the good-natured bickering that breaks out between the
docents, the guards promise a tour that is both flexible and fun.
“There’s always information that is available to the general public,” says
Michelle, “but the published didactic might gloss over some of the juicier
bits that people are more interested in, like the great conceptual artist
who threw his wife out the window, or that Damien Hurst was obsessed with
the Sex Pistols and worked in a bar.” While Rogue Docent tours are less
academic than typical docent guided tours, you can expect to learn a good
deal about art and art history as well.
Michelle studied fine arts and art history in college, but much of her
knowledge of art is garnered through working at the Minneapolis Institute
of Art and prior to that at the Walker Art Center. “Stumbling into the
nonprofit world of museum work,” says Michelle, “has been like getting a
free master’s degree in art all wrapped up in a pretty bow.” Michelle
Layland is also a multi-media artist who specialized in spinning,
knitting and fiber arts. Emily Kaplan studied at the Art Institute of
Chicago, and favors animation and video art. She also curates an
animation blog called Your Daily Cartoon (yourdailycartoon.blogspot.com).
To date, all the Rogue Docent tours have been held at the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts although Michelle and Emily hope to perform a raid upon
the Walker Art Center someday. In an effort to keep the tours as low-
cost and egalitarian as possible, all the tours have taken place on free
days or in the exhibits at the museum that are open to the public without
charge. Where there is free art to be found, there will be Rogue Docents
coming to deconstruct it.
The next Rogue Docent tour, “Jerks of History,” is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “Jerks of
History” will center on art pieces that were owned by or that depict
notoriously unkind historical figures. Additional details about upcoming
tours can be located on The Rogue Docent Tour public Facebook page. The
tours are free and open to the public (but it’s always nice to tip your