One of the reasons many docents continue to volunteer at museums, historic sites, zoos, gardens, and nature centers is the opportunity such activities offer for personal growth. (And, I’m not talking here about all those “goodies” in the volunteer room!) Many institutions offer continuing college-level classes about their collections and educational techniques for their volunteers, most without cost. Many museums go a step, or a few miles, further by planning “field trips” that take their volunteers to other museums to learn more about content and technique. Such trips are not without risk, but careful planning can ensure quality experiences for both volunteers and paid staff.
A common destination for docent “tours” is a large city museum offering a “blockbuster” exhibit— a “must see” for anyone with an interest in art, or history, or whatever topic the exhibit is centered on. While these are great trips, and offer opportunities for team-building camaraderie, they may not actually be the best learning experiences. There may be little or no connection between the “blockbuster” and your collections; often the only tours available use some type of audio-tour, so docents learn nothing about improving their own tours. Smaller exhibits, or smaller museums that offer collections not available in your area, may do a much better job of supplementing your docents’ knowledge about your collection. Other area sites that offer educational programming are also excellent destinations.
Educational outings need not be limited to sites or tours similar to those offered at your institution, however. Since some of the most creative programming may come from thinking “out of the box,” tours to institutions with very different collections or programming may be valuable if several productive connections have been thought of in advance. Art museum docents may learn how to manage hands-on activities by watching how they take place at a zoo; science center docents may discover new ways of promoting careful observation on a trip to a historic house. Docents from not-for-profit institutions may learn crowd management tips by touring a local factory.
The best time to plan docent “field trips” is, of course, when you aren’t touring. The main problem is that your destination site may also not be touring then. If this is the case, the education director of the site may be able to arrange a special tour for your group. Try to arrange your visit for a time when your destination isn’t so crowded that their staff can’t help you. Sometimes, special tours can be arranged for a Monday or whenever the destination institution is ordinarily closed to the public. Be prepared, of course, to offer to reciprocate.
Various modes of transportation are possible for docent trips, depending on the destination. For most trips, a chartered bus or chartered van is the best solution. Not only do most bus companies offer liability insurance for the passengers, it is usually safest to leave the driving to a professional. When individual vans or cars are used, drivers should check their insurance policies and state laws concerning driver liability. Bus companies that offer tours as a regular part of their business often can offer less expensive hotel rates when overnight trips are planned. Sometimes the transportation can be part of the adventure. Vintage railroads, trolleys, streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, and other modes of travel are helpful in recreating an era; often, too, the tour guides for these commercial ventures are great fun (even if they may be more creative than accurate).
When deciding on the cost of a docent trip, the actual expenses of transportation, housing, and any admission charges should be included. Additionally, a prorated cost for snacks and morning coffee, advertising costs, and staff time may be included (or absorbed by the museum). If possible, it is best to have participants purchase their own meals as this simplifies your planning. However, arrangements should be made with restaurants ahead of time if a large group will be eating together It is not fair to expect quality service from a restaurant when they have had no prior warning that 45 people are about to descend upon them! Many chain restaurants (especially those near major highways and tourist destinations) offer free meals to the bus driver and tour leader; be sure to ask.
It is always easiest and less expensive to plan day trips. However, when an overnight stay is required, book double rooms for both safety and reduced expense. Be sure to check to see if luggage service is available and will be included in the quoted cost. It may also be necessary to ensure first floor rooms and rooms with wheelchair access for some of your volunteers.
Many docents are experienced travelers and have learned to be flexible. They can be a great help as you travel, especially if emergencies arise. Whenever possible, two staff members should always accompany a museum-sponsored trip in case one is needed to take care of an injury or other emergency. Basic first aid and CPR training is a real plus for tour guides and staff And, travel equipment should include a first aid kit, as well as emergency numbers and a list of medications for all participants.
Planning trips of extensive length or distance might best be left to a travel agent. In addition to freeing museum staff for other work, travel agents can often get better prices than individuals can, and they are paid by the vendors, not by you!
There are some risks involved with docent trips, as with most fun things in life. The chance to learn, to grow, and to share with people of like interests, however, far outweighs the potential dangers of leaving our own backyards.
Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor
Littleton, Jackie. “Planning Educational Outings for Docents: Get Out of Town!,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 15-16.