In museum circles there’s much buzz over Ellen Gamermanʼs recent Wall Street Journal article, “Docents Gone Wild.” In her cautionary piece, Gamerman describes the occasional rogue docent whose performance in the galleries does not measure up to museum expectations—the greying, privileged volunteer who strays off script, misstates facts, or touches the artwork, among other dreadful infractions.
In light of such attention to docent behavior, the time feels right to reflect on the performance of Joslyn docents (who I have never observed “going wild.”) The glowing reports from teachers and visitors by far exceed the occasional misstep, and considering our docents conducted 1,288 tours for over 14,000 visitors last year, that says a lot.
Joslyn Art Museum holds the utmost admiration for its docent corps. Our gallery teachers are recognized as professional, vital members of the education department who deserve and receive praise for working tirelessly, without a dime, on behalf of the Museum. In the spirit of generosity and community service, our volunteer docents understand that no amount of money can equal the reward that comes with meeting new people and engaging them in meaningful conversations about art. The hard work and commitment they bring to the Museum is without measure, which is why we do best to train and manage this extraordinary group.
Gamerman opens her article with the words, “More arts-loving baby boomers—educated, experienced and recently retired—are hustling to become museum tour guides.” Why? With so many volunteer opportunities available to people eager to share their time and talent with the community, why would anyone want to be a docent? Docenting is hard work.
Training to be a tour guide begins with a rigorous two-year course in art history and pedagogy, followed by continuing education courses with curators and art professionals throughout a docent’s tenure. With over 11,000 works of art in Joslynʼs extraordinary permanent collection, and several special exhibitions rotated through the Museum every year, there is a lot to learn!
Being a docent requires excellent public speaking and group management skills. Docents must engage visitors of all ages and dispositions—from the youngest student to the most seasoned art expert—in easy, thought-provoking conversation. They are expected to afford equal attention to the visitor and the object while keeping everyone a safe distance from of the artworks.
Docents must decipher volumes of information about artists, materials and techniques, stylistic movements, economics, politics, social issues and so on, all related to a single object. Preparing for just one tour can take hours of research and preparation, yet the docent knows that the information gathered may never be shared with the visitor. It is not enough for a gallery teacher to memorize and communicate art historical facts. Today, an effective interpreter must facilitate meaningful connections between people and objects in order to create an interactive experience that pushes far beyond the lecture. Yes, being a docent is an art in itself.
As I write this I listen to the chatter of a group of docents in the adjacent room preparing for their next tour. Three or four of them have gathered to discuss how they will engage their student groups with the artwork. They talk about effective teaching strategies, they carefully plot their traffic patterns through the galleries, they share tips about what works and what doesn’t, or how they might gently guide the rambunctious child through a discussion about the parts of art. They also share pictures of the newest grand baby and lean on one another when times are tough. They may be discussing the Wall Street Journal article posted on their bulletin board, curious that their role is suddenly scrutinized in a public platform. Their giggly conversation is warm, considerate, and punctuated by the occasional rip of laughter. It is the kind of conversation shared between close friends. It is a sound I hear every day…a sound I love…a sound I’m thankful for.
As summer winds down—as we puzzle together our schedule of classes and speakers, as we anticipate another busy school year, and as the docent application deadline of August 28 approaches—candidate interviews begin in earnest. It is a pleasure meeting new applicants eager to serve the Museum and embark on a journey that most of them have been looking forward to for years. I welcome this time to reflect on the role of our gallery teachers, selfless volunteers who enable the Museum to fulfill its mission to interpret, inspire, and bring people and works of art together. Joslyn has good reason to be wild about our docents.
Director of Adult Programs