Some questions are repeatedly asked of volunteer docents. Why do you volunteer? What do you gain? Why have you continued to be a docent for so long? The three of us have tried to address these questions and others as we reflect on our over seventy years of collective service to the Chrysler Museum of Art.
Over the last thirty years, museums have struggled with their views of docents. Most encouraged docents by expanding their education programs. However, things changed when disparaging comments about volunteers and their “art interpretation” became an undercurrent at the National Docent Symposium in Toledo in 1987. We learned that some museums were deciding not to use volunteer docent guides altogether. We discovered that all our programs were at the same crossroads and that we, the volunteers, needed to hone our skills in order to stay viable.
Thirteen years later, docents are being praised as vital links between their institution, staff, and visitors. Docents worked hard to deserve these accolades; we have developed a new vision for ourselves. The title of the Seattle Symposium in 1997 was right to the point: New Roles, New Goals. Those of us who attended for the Chrysler Museum returned with a hope chest full of ideas we hoped to implement. They included: long range planning, interactive techniques in every training, better contact between teachers and docents, multi-school visits, a junior docent program, more upper staff involvement, better use of local experts, a docent serving as an ex-officio member of the museum board, and additional copies of The Docent Educator. Some of these ideas have been implemented and some are still beyond our reach, but we continue to persevere.
The Chrysler Museum has mirrored the national trends. Our education department in the late 1960’s was striving to put together a cohesive training program with a director and one secretary. Docents attended weekly lectures, totally unrelated to the objects on display at the museum. The docent core typically numbered 15 to 20. Then, we all began to work together to formulate tours, and a yearlong project involved three of us putting together a syllabus to be used with the collection. With its completion, we were no longer “winging it.” Our docent corps eventually increased, as did the size of our education department staff. We created new tours to keep our audiences interested and catered to the school system’s curricular requirements. With our growth came new successes and new problems.
Despite the challenges, I have remained a docent for three decades because I love it. Touring was, and still is, an enormous challenge. I constantly revisit and re-think standard tours, research and put together scripts for changing exhibitions, help with training other docents, and serve on docent boards and committees. The rewards come from our visitors. It makes every struggle worthwhile when a young girl, who is part of a severely disabled group in wheelchairs, tells me in halting voice which paintings touched her most, and how she will envision them when she needs a lift.
One day, in the autumn of 1972, I sat outside the Chrysler Museum theater looking around at twenty or so other prospective docents. I realized that I did not know a single one. I came to the museum to fulfill my placement requirement for the Junior League. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I was getting into, but I loved history and the few art history courses I took in college. That “docent business” sounded interesting, and so, there I was. Twenty-seven years later, I am still a docent (emeritus) at the Chrysler Museum.
On that first day we were given four or five sheets of information on approximately 12 to 18 works of art in the collection, told to read them, and then asked to sign up to lead groups of children through the museum. We were assured that we would know more than the children, and that we just needed to make it fun. That was the extent of our “training.”
The following year, one docent who fell in love with the French art in our collection and spent time researching it offered to share her information. Other docents were at work researching the Italian, Ancient Worlds, and Dutch- Flemish collections. Our education director thought a costume tour would be fun but had no time to pursue it. Would I be interested? Oh boy, would I! What fun I had collecting books, reading and relating the costumes on the pages to those in our paintings and sculptures. I even combined my other hobby, sewing, with dressing dolls to be taken into the classrooms for outreach programs.
It was from these humble beginnings that our advanced training, now know as Level B, originated. In these early years, we were pretty much on our own. Later, curators became involved and generously shared their expertise with us.
In April of 1985, 1 was asked to represent the Chrysler Museum at a meeting of the National Association of Museums in Phoenix, Arizona. It was there that I first hear about docent evaluations and brought the idea back to our museum. After much debate, we eventually instituted an evaluation procedure tor docents. The process has been adjusted over the years, and in its present form is contributing to better tours every year.
Among the many reasons I have remained a docent for twenty-seven years, two are primary. They are the enormous intellectual stimulation of working with a group of intelligent and caring women, and learning from the leadership of our director of education, who had an extraordinary ability to make each and every docent feel special and talented.
My husband was a military officer, and we moved frequently during his thirty-year career. Perhaps the most interesting place we lived was in Bangkok, Thailand, in the early 1970’s. It was there that I first became a docent.
I found myself among a diverse group of well-educated and dynamic women of various nationalities who had a common bond — we were in Bangkok because of our husband’s careers. We were all drawn, for one reason or another, to the magnificent collection of the National Museum in Bangkok and the fledgling docent program that had been founded by a similar group of international wives. The overall docent program was both administered and funded solely by the docents themselves. As I recall, my training consisted of an introduction to the collection. I was then asked to select a particular area of the collection to research, provided with some guidelines and a bibliography, and told to write a tour.
Since I knew nothing about Oriental art and even less about Thai history and culture, it was most definitely a learning experience! It proved to be a most rewarding one as well. During the course of my research, I became fascinated with an era of Thai history that had produced a prototype Buddha image and a remarkable civilization.
The friendships I made with a diverse group of docents, the opportunity to tour and talk with visitors from many different parts of the world, the fabulous trips that were sponsored by the umbrella docent organization (including a memorable week in Burma), and the incredible education experience of living in and learning about a different culture were among the many rewards I received as a docent in Bangkok.
When we moved to Norfolk, many years later, and my husband decided to retire here, I joined the docent program at the Chrysler Museum. Although the venue is far different and a world away from the National Museum in Bangkok , the rewards are similar (There is only one object from Thailand in the entire collection here, so no one was particularly impressed with my knowledge of Sukhothai art.) Now, I am beginning my fourteenth year as a docent here, and although I do not have the longevity or historical perspective of Pat and Jennet, I have been involved in many aspects of the program, and have seen a number of changes over the years.
As docents, we constantly face challenges, and we find both rewards and frustrations in the program. An ongoing frustration is the fact that we work to develop innovative touring techniques that sometimes cannot be implemented due to the logistics of certain tours. The rewards, however, far outweigh the frustrations. The lasting friendships I have made, the ongoing education, the excitement of new intellectual challenges, the opportunity to work with children and use the museum’s marvelous collection keep me returning to the Chrysler Museum year after year.
There are also those special moments when I know my efforts have made a small difference —when a child makes a connection with an art work; when children ask if they can come back again; when I get a group of teenagers to actually engage in discussion; or when I hear words of appreciation from the staff These are some of the intangible, but very real, rewards of being a volunteer docent.
Pat Brown grew up in the Washington, DC, area. In high school, she was a member of the debating team and credits this training with being her best preparation for touring. Ms. Brown pursued a BS/RN degree, but married before finishing college. She has been a docent at the Chrysler Museum of Art since 1969.
Jennet Bernert attended the University Of Massachusetts, majoring in education. She spent four years as an elementary teacher before becoming a homemaker and volunteer She entered the Chrysler Museum of Art’s docent program in 1972 and is presently a master docent and docent emeritus. In 1999, Ms. Bernert was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). She now gives tours using an electric “scooter ” She calls this yet another of her “docent experiences.”
Betsy Browne was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. In college, she pursued a liberal arts degree but switched to education. Although marriage interrupted her studies, Ms. Browne eventually returned to college and earned two degrees in early childhood education before becoming a docent at the Chrysler Museum of Art in 1986.
Brown, Pat, Jennet Bernert & Betsy Browne. “3 Docents, 70 Years of Volunteer Experience,” The Docent Educator 9.3 (Spring 2000): 17-18.