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A Good Beginning … Leads to a Good Conclusion

As we conclude this publication, I’d like to go back a bit to the beginning. Our first issue appeared in the autumn of 1991, and, on the front page of the “little-bit-smaller-than-now” magazine was this statement: Every issue of The Docent Educator will present valuable information and practical techniques applicable to a docent’s professionally-sized challenge and commitment.

We believed then, and we believe now, that docents are the key to object-based, inquiry learning … the key to making the collections of museums, zoos, nature centers, and historic sites accessible to the public. In fact, although technology has made significant in-roads in such institutions, we still believe that nothing can replace a good docent.

A few things have changed in the 12+ years we’ve been putting this magazine together. More and more museums are replacing lecture-style presentations with inquiry learning. More museums are using some form of evaluation in order to professionalize their docent staff More museums offer training for their docents that doesn’t focus on the “what” as much as the “how.” And, we don’t usually have to explain “docent” anymore.

When I worked for a small history museum in Tennessee, my goal in life was to get the newspaper to write the word “docent” without putting “tour guide” in parentheses after it. Of course, we still have an occasional problem with the word. I visited our local zoo to borrow a drawing and explained that I was from The Docent Educator. Before I could finish the sentence, the education director interrupted, “We don’t have any docents. All our educators are paid.”

At a natural history museum, I was once told that “docent” was a dirty word to them. “We call our educators ‘guides’ or ‘facilitators’.

“Docent is a snobby word,” he continued. “You know, a docent is one of those art museum people who bore you to death telling you everything they know.”

Actually, we are quite fond of the word “docent.” We don’t think it’s snobby. We think it’s perfect, especially if you know what it really means. In 1915, Benjamin Ives Oilman, who was director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, first used the term to identify a group of specially trained volunteers of the museum’s new education division.

He said, “A museum performs its complete office as it is at once gardant, monstrant, and docent.” He elaborated that as a museum preserves (gardant) and exhibits (monstrant), it also must fulfill its duty of “sharpening the spiritual sight.” It was this duty to which he gave the name docent.

Literally, of course, the word means teacher. Docents today follow the tradition of discovery learning established by the Boston museum. They facilitate learning by helping visitors make personal connections between the objects collected in their museums, historic houses, zoos, science centers, and botanical gardens. They “sharpen the spiritual sight” by allowing visitors to experience the past, to experience art, to experience living creatures through sensory contact with these objects in their institutions. They help take the mystery out of objects without destroying the wonder.

A year or so ago, Reader’s Digest magazine had a great anecdote that illustrates my point. Outside the Noah Webster house at the Greenfield Village historical park in Dearborn, Michigan, a father was trying to explain to his young children who Noah Webster was and why the emergence of dictionaries was so important. He seemed ready to give up when, with a flash of insight, he explained, “Noah Webster was the grandfather of spell check.” Immediately, the kids nodded and smiled, the connection suddenly made clear in their modern-day world. Docents do this every day.

When I was a little girl growing up in Austin, Texas, my family spent at least one Sunday afternoon a month at the Texas State Museum. I loved those outings. I never grew tired of the enormous Olmec heads down in the basement or the taxidermied coyotes, bison, and other animals of our state. My favorite part was the historic dioramas — tiny, three-dimensional re-creations of events in Texas history from prehistoric times right up through the Alamo and Texas Independence. When I started to school, my family continued our monthly trips to the museum, but I can’t remember ever taking a school field trip there.

As a matter of fact, I can only remember one field trip in my entire school career—my fifth grade class took a walk to a nearby creek to study the creatures that lived in it and those that had left their footprints in the limestone when it was only a muddy creek bottom. Even though Mr. Oilman’s museum way up in Boston had docents, I was well out of school before I ever encountered one. So, why do we need docents?

For one thing, that trip to the creek is one of the most vivid memories of elementary school — still remarkably fresh after over fifty years. My parents did a lot of things right— they took me to Austin’s museums, and to the San Antonio Zoo and all the museums in that museum-rich city. They read the labels to me when I asked them to; they asked me questions about what I saw; and, most importantly, they gave me lots of time to interact with the objects on my own level and at my own pace. Today, too many parents have neither the time nor the inclination to take children to museums. And, when they do, they may only take their preschoolers, or they become talking labels because they don’t have all the information they need to help children make meaningful connections with the exhibits they’re seeing. Some parents, too, take their job as “purveyors of the culture” so seriously they can kill any innate interest their children might have in the objects they’re seeing.

I watched a family in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum once. As they entered, the young mother dutifully guided her husband and two children to the first exhibit case and began to read and explain. She moved to the next case, but her husband was beginning to drift, and, although they were still looking at her, the kids were glancing over their shoulders at the “other stuff” across the room. By the time she reached the third case, she’d lost them all. Of course, the kids would have been in graduate school by the time she finished the first floor at the rate she was going.

In addition to having more information about the collection and about how to best present it than do most parents and teachers, docents can help their visitors select wisely and to see things from a different perspective. And, of course, docents also learn to see things from a different point of view when they pay attention to their visitors.

What docents do best is provide the real thing. Docents have two huge advantages over the classroom teacher. One, of course, is that both the docent and the kids don’t have to be in the museum; they’re there because they want to be. The biggest advantage, though, is that docents have the real stuff—the butter churn, the impressionist painting, the lion. Docents and their visitors don’t have to read about them in a book. They can see the real thing.

Docent means teacher in Latin, but a docent is different from a classroom teacher in some really special ways. Docents work with the “real” stuff They help visitors connect objects to concepts. They ask the right questions. Docents help visitors learn skills they can use with other collections and in other contexts. One of the most valuable parts of a docent’s job is to help visitors, especially our youngest, to know that the art, the history, and the flora and fauna of this world belong to aU of us … and that life is much more than a job. Docents do that best because, in addition to teaching about and with objects, they teach with their lives. By being a volunteer — by sharing a passion for the institution in which they volunteer — docents show children (and adults) that vocation is more important than job.

Forgive my getting personal, but this is the last article I’ll write for a magazine that has been a particular passion of mine for 13 years. I hope you know, and that we’ve been able to convey through the years, how valuable you are, and I hope your museum tells you so in a hundred different ways. I hope you save those funny little letters you get from children who’ve been on your tours. I hope you understand that you are making a difference in the lives of children and adults by your willingness to give your time and your knowledge.

By the way, back to this issue’s theme. In concluding a tour, a docent restates the goals of the tour, summarizes the learning that should have taken place, and tells her audience how glad she is to have spent some time with them. That’s what I’ve tried to do in this article. I hope I was successful.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “A Good Beginning…Leads to a Good Conclusion,” The Docent Educator 13.2 (Winter 2003-04): 18-19.

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