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Approaches to Docent Recruitment and Selection

Staff and volunteers often wonder about attrition among docent staffs. Who might drop out? Who plans to come back in the fall? Will there be enough docents? What new program initiatives will require the museum to add more docents for the next year?

Over the years, museum educators have developed effective recruitment approaches that work, and The Docent Educator is one of the few forums to share these ideas. This article may help educators and docents expand their thinking about recruitment activities by borrowing a few strategies from the fields of education, human resources, and communications.

To help you plan ahead, here are a few pointers.

Tried and Tested Recruitment Ideas

  • Start a file to gather names and addresses of potential docents. Throughout the year, adults may call to inquire about your docent program. Keep their names in a file so you can contact them when you are ready to launch a recruitment campaign. If your museum maintains mailing lists of individuals and groups who have participated in museum programs or taken a tour during the last two years, add their names to the file as well. Keep the list current (under a year old) since it is often difficult to maintain a list that is not current, and since people move. You may want to add the names and addresses of larger apartment complexes and nearby offices that have employee newsletters. The museum’s development staff may guide you in this direction. Active docents should be considered a resource, providing names of friends and neighbors who might be interested.
  • Compose and mail a letter of intent. The letter should begin, “The Museum is recruiting a new class of volunteer museum tour guides (docents).” Many people are unfamiliar with: (a) the term “docent,” and (b) with the fact that docents are volunteers. Keep the letter to one page. In the first paragraph, inform the reader about what docents do for museums. Secondly, share the time of the new class and its requirements, and finally, tell the reader what personal benefits and rewards he or she receives by serving the museum as a docent. End the letter with a phone number to call for more information.
  • Prepare a recruitment brochure. Even if it’s a quick-print or desk-top flyer, a brochure serves two purposes: it provides the inquirer with more detailed information, and it serves as a request for a personal interview to learn more about the program. Send it in response to any phone inquiries for information.
  • Stage photo sessions to create a file of 8×10″ black-and-white glossy photographs of docents in action giving tours. Prepare photo captions with each print and send them to community newspapers and employee newsletters, with particular emphasis on the local newspaper in the docents’ own neighborhood. The media like to run photos and stories about people in their neighborhoods who contribute time in community service projects. Send the captioned photo with a press release. Again, keep it short and simple with a headline such as, “Pied Piper Jane Doe of (neighborhood or township) Creates Tours de Force at Museum.” Let the press know about the docent in one paragraph. Mention the museum and its uniqueness in another. Give the museum history and announce the formation of the new class along with a phone number for more information in the final paragraph.

Establish the Selection Criteria

  •  Create an application form for the new docent class. An application form can take the appearance of a simple employment document asking for name, address, phone numbers, work experience, volunteer experience, and education. You may want to ask a few open-ended questions to learn more about the candidate: List special courses taken (e.g. – art or art history), hobbies, interests, and special skills. What do you think are the main duties of a museum docent? What do you believe to be the main purpose of a museum tour? What kind of supervisor or teacher do you prefer? Do you prefer to work alone or within a group? When are you available (weekends only, weekdays only, weekends and weekdays, how many days per week)? Do you prefer working with children, teenagers, adults?


  • Conduct personal interviews. Ask museum education staff and an active docent to share the interview process as a pair. It is helpful to create a guide for docent interviews so all applicants hear the same information. Include a list of interview questions. An active docent may also give the interested applicants a short tour of the museum building. Thank applicants and let them know you’ll be back in touch within a few days. Fill out a brief summary report immediately following the interview.

 Employers can attest to the need for careful and thorough decision-making because it is costly to hire the wrong staff member; if we think of docents as professional unpaid museum staff members, the same holds true. Although it may seem laborious at first, creating a rating scale from one to five may help, with one being very low and five being very high. Keep notes during or after each interview according to these factors:

* A commitment to learning. The desire to continue learning is what makes a docent a creative and effective teacher. The process of learning requires the investment of time, the discipline to read, study, and evaluate, the attitude of Docents function ensure that those as teachers and institutional representatives. Careful r who are given these responsibilities are well-suited for humility toward all that is yet to be discovered, and the interest to explore new things.

* An interest in and aptitude for teaching. Effective teachers are enthusiastic about their subject, constantly seek further knowledge, and are clear about what they intend to teach. They understand how people learn, and are flexible, inventive, adaptable, and resourceful. * An ability to represent the museum. Docents are liaisons between the visiting public and the museum. In part, the image of the museum is reflected by what the docents say and do.

The importance of rating a prospective docent goes hand-in-hand with the concept of “docent as teacher” which is central to the role of the docent. It is founded on the premise that museums are vital educational institutions. Twentieth-century museums are dedicated to the tasks of collecting, conserving, exhibiting, and interpreting objects. Because of the sensitive role it plays in the major task of interpretation, the docent program is under the auspices of the museum’s education department. An effective docent directs the attention of the visitor to the object and to concepts relating to that object. Teaching with real objects defines museums as unique institutions for contemplating, inquiring, and clarifying. Some of the traits associated with these characteristics, such as oral communication ability, can only be determined in an interview. Traits related to personality, imagination, and motivation may also be proper areas for judgment in an interview. Limit the interview time to 20 minutes. In the interest of uniformity of response from a wide range of interviewers, focus the interview on two characteristics: oral communication ability and motivation. The interview form is structured to accomplish this.

An interview may consist of three parts: putting the applicant at ease; giving the applicant an opportunity to talk about her or his interests and accomplishments: and, answering the applicant’s questions about the museum and the docent program.

You may evaluate the candidate’s performance during the interview in two categories:

* Motivation. The traits we want to evaluate have to do with discipline, drive, persistence in carrying a task to completion, and creativity in attaining a goal, all in relation to success in and a commitment to the docent program.

 * Oral Communication. This is a more transparent characteristic which will be presented as a natural product of the interview. The traits we want to evaluate have to do with clarity of thought and the ability to express thought orally in an organized and clearly understandable manner.

Docents have found the structure interview described above is easy and fun to conduct, and it has proven to be a useful aid in selecting new docents.

It is important to effectively communicate appropriate and accurate information about the museum and your docent program when answering applicants” questions. Answer questions honestly. Do not let the interview close vaguely. Let the applicant know what the next step in the selection process will be. You may want to reiterate the time commitment and inquire if the time commitment or transportation could pose a problem. Applicants who are accepted as docent candidates will be notified by phone call or letter and will begin a – week/month internship on (date and time).

  • After the Selection Process Once the interviews are complete, follow-through with these important steps:
  • Send a follow-up “thank you” letter inviting the applicant to become a docent candidate. Often, there is little need to “reject” an applicant if the interview process is structured as the one described above. Applicants will prefer to self-select and screen themselves out once they’ve learned how much time and energy being a docent will require. If you do not believe the applicant is a good match, telephone the individual and explain this, offering to pass their name along to a different museum department that may use volunteers and want to know about his or her special interests and skills.
  • Create a “Welcome Packet” for new recruits. On the first day of the new docent class meeting, distribute a folder to each participant including a fact sheet about the museum, information about parking lots and nearby restaurants if necessary, a clearly defined job description of the docent’ s role and responsibilities, a class outline or syllabus for each session during the course/semester, and a name tag for the docent to wear. As a special courtesy, include a list of names and address of all class members for information exchange.
  • Remember that initial impressions really do count, so spend time planning for the first class session. Provide simple refreshments and design your program to include a few docents who will be asked to share their personal insights, show a few slides of tours and letters from tour group participants, and stress the value of the docent program in the context of the museum’s mission. Ask experienced docents to greet visitors at the door and to sit at round tables to speak with prospects informally. In art museums, docents often receive formal art history and museum education instruction for many weeks or months before starting to think about giving tours. Before focusing on the content of the class, be sure to give individuals time to share something about themselves along with introductions. Invent creative ways to introduce all class members to one another. If active docents will also be in the class with new docents, assign a mentor or partner for each new member.
  • Document what worked and what didn’t. Keep a journal or diary, or scribble you thoughts onto a memo for your files so you can refine your recruitment approaches over the years. Past experience is a valuable resource. You’ll spend less time figuring it out all over again the next time, and you’ll offer great assistance to those succeeding you.
  • Celebrate the completion of the docent course with a luncheon, “graduation,” or other special event. Introduce appropriate ways to integrate the new group with the current touring program and with other active docents. This step is essential to help docents master the skills needed to be effective teachers and there is ample literature in the fields of teacher education and museum education to help you create a smooth and meaningful transition. The job of successful recruitment and selection doesn’t represent the end of an activity; it represents the beginning of a new venture for all involved.

Inez S. Wolins, Ph.D., has worked in museum education departments in Philadelphia, Tampa, Ithaca, and Boston. She admits that she’s been in museum work long enough to have recruited, educated, and graduated over 500 docents and has been on university faculties long enough to have graduated more than 50 new museum educators. A frequent author about issues of teaching and learning in museums, Dr. Wolins has conducted docent workshops for dozens of museums nationwide. She is currently Director of the Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas, where she now recruits, selects, and works with boards of directors.

Wolins, Inez S. “Approaches to Docent Recruitment and Selection,” The Docent Educator 3.3 (Spring 1994): 4-6.

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