Docent Educator Logo

Why We Stay. Why We Leave.

Museum rewards and incentives don’t seem to have much to do with why docents stay and why they leave, it the experiences of The Birmingham Museum of Art over the last 47 years mean anything.

In 1952, The Kress Foundation deeded 29 works to The Birmingham Museum of Art. Two years later, a bequest of Mrs. Helen Jacob Wells made it possible to build the first museum building. Six years ago the building was extensively remodeled and enlarged. It is located between the City Hall, the Court House, and the Civic Center in downtown Birmingham. It has grown into the largest municipal museum in the southeastern United States with Asian, African, American, Contemporary, and Kress galleries.

There are two especially significant decorative arts galleries for the Wedgwood and Hitt collections. Our Wedgwood collection is the largest one of its kind outside of England. The Hitt collection consists of 18th century French paintings and furnishings. There is also a growing glass collection featuring Dale Chihuley’s Birmingham Persian Wall and a three-level outdoor sculpture garden.

The Docent Program

Under the supervision of the Curator of Education, the assistant curator directs the docent program of 90 weekday docents, 25 weekend docents, and an annual training class of about 30. There are usually several docents on leave. A docent may be on leave one year without having to go back through a training class. All docents are unpaid volunteers.

The Museum also has about 400 volunteers under the direction of the staff Volunteer Coordinator. Volunteers work in the Museum gift shops, at information desks, and provide valuable assistance in working with special exhibitions. Each year, a Docent Council officer is appointed as the docent liaison with the Volunteer Board to help coordinate our volunteer efforts. A considerable number of docents also work as volunteers in other capacities. Last year, one of our senior docents was also honored as the Volunteer of the Year. A couple of docents are on the Museum Board of Trustees.

The Docent Council consists of 21 officers and committee chairpersons, of whom four are Day Chairpersons. Each Day Chairperson assigns docents for all tours on his or her tour day. The Museum is closed to the public on Mondays when training is conducted in separate sessions for docents and trainees. Weekend Docents are a separate group and they usually do not conduct school groups but have open public tours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Why Do Trainees Leave?

We have had a high level of dropouts, as high as 50%, in the first year training classes even though we ask trainees for a minimum two-year commitment. This loss is attributable to:

Recruiting people, or accepting applications from people, who do not have a clear understanding of the work involved. They also may find that they do not have the free time that training and touring require. Our department could benefit from a thorough study of Harding and Raphling’s article. Knowing What’s Expected, which appeared in the Winter 1997 (Volume 7, Number 2) issue of The Docent Educator.

Trainees with children find that travel and training time are more than the time they allowed for child care.

Training has acted as a fascinating introduction to art and a few people resign from our program to continue their formal education.

Trainees may like art history and education but some do not like the practical training and leading of tour groups. This includes the required routes and objects on tours that are augmenting school subjects. We have certain grants to provide an educational service. Docents on those tours must be consistent with the school programs.

We have had high turnover with curators of education who are the docent trainers. I have admired everyone of these people and each has had valuable abilities and talents but that instability has affected the trainee retention in the past 5 years.

Trainees also experience the same problems as senior docents in personal and family health and care giving. There are also the pleasant reasons for leaving such as marriage and relocating.

Why Do Docents Leave?

I have discussed the subject of burnout and resignations with several active, experienced docents. I have not encountered one who experienced burnout or who knew a docent who had. I went back to a docent director of six years ago that worked with 59 docents. I compared the earlier roster with one of five years later when we had grown to 90 weekday docents. Twenty-three from the earlier roster were not active five years later. This means we retained 61% of our docents for five years and had averaged losing a little less than 8% a year.

I called some of these former docents. There was not one dominate reason for their leaving the program. I presume a leading reason was relocation because several telephone numbers were discontinued or were in use by another person or business.

Several former docents cited personal health problems or health problems that required them to be the primary caregiver. Another group cited job reasons: change of job, increased responsibilities, or the job(s) required more time. The rest were unique reasons, such as an out-of-state second home or a change in children’s needs and requirements. Every former docent expressed regret at having to leave the program. Many stated that it was the most rewarding work they had ever done. None blamed dissatisfaction with the Museum, the staff, or touring duties for their resignation.

Two docents did express negative views. One had resigned because she felt a docent council officer was rude and overbearing with her. Another experienced docent was disappointed that, when she had to leave for family health reasons, no one in the docent program ever called her about returning.

Almost all docents had definite ideas about improving our program and the training. The Life Insurance Management and Research Association cites four conditions under which adults best learn or are best trained. These conditions are when there is: motivation to learn; active participation; feedback on progress; materials taught or used in training as it is to be used in work. Nearly all of the docents suggestions for our program improvements fell within one of these areas.

Why Do Docents Stay?

The People. By far, the largest reason docents stayed with the program was the people.

“I didn’t know any of the other docents when I signed on and now I feel like they are all my friends.”

“I don’t know of any other organization I could join and meet people with such a variety of interests, talents, and abilities as the ones in the docent program.”

“I hate to miss training because I don’t want to miss seeing my friends.”

The Museum and the Art. “I minored in art and this is the closest I come to calling art my profession.”

“I was a microbiologist and when I retired I wanted to volunteer in a field in the opposite direction from science.”

“We love art and schedule our vacations to visit many museums. When I’m home, docent work allows me to spend more time with art.”

“We have a beautiful museum and I have never lived in a city where the city office holders, people in the private sector, individual families, the public at large, and the newspapers supported a cultural attraction as well as they do the BMA in Birmingham.”

The Variety in the Work. “Our docents are not specialists. Not a month goes by that I don’t have a variety of tours: age groups from Kindergarten to Elderhostel, choices from several different types of school-related tours, or walk-in Hi-lite tours at noon.”

“My favorite tours are with the visually handicapped. To apply all of the research, training, visual aids, and models … provided is sheer joy. We open vistas of joy to these folks.”

The Work Itself. Eyes light up and sometimes tears come when docents start remembering the feedback they received after a tour: the looks, the words, the notes, the body language, or a child’s hand slipped into the docent’s.

“A football player, who had graduated, took off from work the next year and joined the high school seniors when they visited the BMA.”

“A man and his wife wrote separate letters about the excitement they received on a tour.”

“I’m a valuable part of the Museum staff, the largest part, the visible part.”

“I tell the staff what I would like to see displayed. They listen and try to do it — or, give me good reasons why they can’t.

“I’m a docent ambassador speaker for the Museum, and I love to see Rotarians’ faces light up when I tell them what’s happening and what’s coming. ‘You don’t want to miss this!'”

“I can’t wait to get home and tell the family about the surprise I received on a tour.”

Museum Incentives. 7\11 of the above reasons for enjoying their work are incentives to our docents. Docents never mentioned “museum incentives” as a reason to volunteer or stay. Rewards do show appreciation and make the work even more enjoyable. All docents are members of the museum and members, who are not docents, also receive the first of these:

  • Admission to the BMA is free to the public, but the museum charges for some large exhibitions. The docents have free admission to these.
  • Docents receive free copies of the catalogues of our permanent collection and catalogues for the special galleries. When catalogues are printed for special exhibits, the docents receive free copies.
  • There are two parties each year for docents, and the Education Department pays for the final awards luncheon.
  • We take two field trips per year to special exhibitions, such as the Picasso or Five Rings of Art at the High Museum, to collectors’ homes, or to artists’ studios. (Yes, the docents pay for these trips themselves, but if I were not a docent, I would miss most of these opportunities.)
  • Of course, there is a discount at the gift shop and an additional discount if, and while, a docent works in one of the shops before Christmas time. To these incentives, I add our library and our librarians who are so courteously helpful.

A senior docent stated firmly her opinion of Museum Incentives when she said, “My greatest incentive is when the Museum offers exciting education and training programs. I can’t stay away!”

Another senior docent summed up the feeling of most docents on the subject when she said, “I love art and I just love our museum. They’ll have to bomb me to get me out of here!”

Bud Johnson is an active docent at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, AL, where he also is the Docent Chairperson. Mr. Johnson also serves on the National Docent Symposium Council.

Johnson, Bud. “Recruiting and Retaining Docents,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 12-13.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *