Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



April 2011

Metropolitan Museum of Art - I will never forget today's docent. She was a nurse who had recently retired. Her training spanned every week for five years before she could take her first group on a tour. You could tell she loved telling us about several pieces from the medieval collection, one of three she had mastered.

Travel Journal Entry


What Makes a Great Docent?

Dear Reader,

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.

I have 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.

Metropolitan 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?

As a 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.

After 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 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 flew by!!

In order for that to happen, docents need to possess at least four qualities.
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?

The 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? Go ahead!