What Makes a Great Docent?
I was trolling
the waters of memory and imagination looking for this month's topic, and one of
those magic moments happened. I thought, "Why not write about docents?"
What do they have to do with art, writing or creative thinking? The more I thought
about it, the more it seemed right for this month.
Where do you find docents?
For starters, in art and historical museums. A docent will arrive in the museum
lobby at an appointed time to take a group on an advertised tour. These tours
are usually free or included in the price of admission. The topic is listed so
that you can decide if you are interested. Then just show up! Part of the fun
is seeing who else is there. Usually, you will receive a delightful introduction
to a parts of an enormous collection that you might easily walk by.
always been in awe of the depth and breadth of knowledge docents seem to have
in their possession. Their training is rigorous and fueled by passion for the
subject. Years of study and practice will yield one remarkable hour. My art journal
has many entries devoted to the special qualities of docents who have taught me
about collections and special exhibitions.
Here are some excerpts from
my art journals:
Philadelphia Museum of Art - Another excellent docent
tour! This docent was from Belgium and took us on a Highlights of the Collection
tour. At the end, I asked her how she decided which artworks she would talk about.
She said that she looked for some link in either style or subject. This time it
was baroque and rococo periods. She showed us a crucifixion diptych by Rogier
van der Weyden from Belgium. By the time she finished, we were ready to book a
flight to Belgium to see more art.
Whitney Museum of American Art
- I can look at my copy of the Charles Burchfield's exhibit book to enjoy his
watercolor's over and over. But here is what I will remember about the 55-minute
docent tour: her close look at the gallery of Burchfield's doodles, showing his
restless, obsessive mind; the wallpaper room, so dramatic and surrealistic; his
declaration of 1917-19 as his "golden age" with examples; his return
to motifs of his childhood, symbols he created that expressed emotions of fear,
anxiety, insanity; how his work was always grounded in nature. Great tour because
the docent provided focus for each work she discussed.
Museum of Art - We jumped into a docent tour that was fun. Fun, if you wanted
a work-out! We had to run to keep up with the docent, and three of us sped along
behind her. A fourth person had dropped out of the race soon after the grand staircase.
She pointed out the two galleries that were the "original" Met - currently
a medieval gallery where the Neopolitan creche always is placed. The docent's
theme was based on an oft-repeated question: What did this artist do here that
was different? Duccio - depth in an era when icons were being painted, Poussin
- treatment of an historical scene (Rape of the Sabine Women), Velazquez - loose
brushwork and choice of peasant, not royalty as subject.
Not only have
I enjoyed dozens of museum docent tours over the years, I have become a docent
and trainer here in Worcester, Massachusetts. How did that happen?
result of a meeting on March 18, 2009 of the Worcester County Poetry Association,
which was hosted by Carol Stockmal at 4 Woodford Street, I volunteered to work
with Carol to construct a docent outline for the Stanley Kunitz Boyhood Home.
The target event would be the annual Footsteps in History October 11-12
Open House Tour. The Worcester County Poetry Association offered to recruit docents,
and I agreed to train them.
Carol and I met regularly between April 8 and
May 26. These interviews yielded a richness of material well beyond anything I
could have imagined. Carol prepared for our sessions by collecting documents,
such as letters, postcards, photographs, audio and video recordings, magazine
and journal articles, books, artwork, and related material culture that would
support and enhance the Stanley Kunitz Boyhood Home Tour experience.
each session, I used the notes and materials to develop a draft, which I returned
to Carol for her response. We made necessary revisions. We followed this plan
for the writing of each of six sections, which correspond to the house tour: Introduction,
Front Room/Dining Room, Library, Kitchen, Stanley's Bedroom, and Back Hall/Garden.
That was the foundation for the docent outline which is now 85 pages and
still growing. If you want to read more about 4 Woodford Street and the work going
on there, visit www.wcpa.homestead.com
and go to the Stanley Kunitz page.
Since that March meeting, I have trained
two sets of docents who give tours of the house, which is now a Literary Landmark,
one of five in Massachusetts and about 110 in the United States. Read more at
The experience taught me to
appreciate how much devotion and energy it takes to commit to becoming a docent,
whether one's passion is art, literature, or history. Certain qualities seem necessary
to have a tour end with a sense of WOW! That was fascinating! This hour just
In order for that to happen, docents need to possess at least
1. A willingness to learn. This is a task that never ends,
because there is always more to learn.
2. A bit of the performance artist.
Eye contact. Mood. Style. This needs to be an I am going to tell you a story
and you are going to love it kind of person.
3. A good judge of audiences.
Even though there is a lot waiting to be told, asking for questions will help
orchestrate parts of a tour.
4. An ability to organize massive amounts of
material into several stories that support a theme or storyline. This is one of
the most difficult tasks a docent has. A thousand ideas, artifacts, stories, documents
need to be shaped into a sensible narrative because well
have you ever fallen
asleep during a lecture or a sermon that didn't seem to be going anywhere?
list above is by no means complete. The more docent tours I take, the more I notice
about them and their enormous contribution to people's experience. Doesn't it
make you want to go to your local museum and find out if there are docent tours?