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—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 Arts 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.