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Giving Thanks

There is an expression that goes, “If it’s tree, it’s not worth anything.” Well, that may be true of some things, but not of the volunteers who work in our profession. Volunteers have become essential to the operations of a vast majority of museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, gardens, and parks.

Many facilities owe their very existence to the volunteers who crafted a mission and purpose for their institutions and formed the first boards of trustees. Today, these stalwarts of personal commitment and generosity serve in all capacities, and throughout all levels, of their institutions. In addition to acting as trustees, volunteers work with (and as) directors, curators, librarians, maintenance crews, and preparators. They staff information desks, provide legal and financial advice to administrators, plan and execute fundraising events, and conduct interpretive programs of collections and exhibitions.

Regardless of whether the dedicated people who implement public programming are known as “docents,” “interpreters,” “lecturers,” “guides,” or “explainers,” they function as educators and are their institutions’ most visible and publicly accessible representatives. Often, they are the only source of direct personal contact between an institution and its visiting public. For this reason, the caliber and quality of the docents’ performance is inexorably linked to the public’s perception of an institution.

Why Is “Thanks” Necessary?

The integral relationship of docent performance to public perception, as well as the munificent number of hours freely given in service, warrant that every volunteer educator should feel supported in his or her quest for job competence and satisfaction.

With the exception of preserving and protecting the collection, there is no greater purpose for a museum, historic site, zoo, park, aquarium, or garden than its public programming. The American Association of Museums states in its code of ethics that the profession places “a renewed emphasis on the historic American concepts of museums as public trusts and museum work as service to society.” It public service is truly fundamental to every institutional purpose, then logic dictates that those who execute these responsibilities should be of fundamental importance, too.

Only the most callous among us would fail to recognize that volunteer time is precious. Every volunteer minute spent in the service of an institution is a gift. If that gift were considered a cash contribution, these “donors” would be courted, exalted, and revered. Unfortunately, familiarity often strips these “donors” of such a special status.

Why Docents Volunteer

Knowing that docents are essential to the health, vitality, functions, and future of an institution requires that these facilities invest in their volunteer corps. Those who do not risk falling short of achieving a fully-realized, robust institution.

Creating the appropriate environment for docents requires an understanding of why volunteers are drawn toward museum work in general, and educational programming in particular. Certainly, the reasons are many and varied. Some that overlap include: the camaraderie of fellow volunteers, the meaningfulness of the work, and a desire to serve their community.

As the reasons for working in the educational arena are further refined, however, they focus in on a desire to:

  • work with the general public and/or young people;
  • learn more about the institutional subject matter;
  • stimulate interest for the subject matter among others; and
  • foster enthusiasm and support for their institution.

Volunteer docents tend to be highly motivated. Most will return to their voluntary responsibilities year after year regardless of the ups and downs of institutional circumstances and staff changes. The fact that these people remain dedicated does not necessarily mean that they are satisfied, nor does it mean that they can be neglected or taken for granted. The difference between a volunteer corps that thrives from one that simply survives is immense. It is a difference that will have a real impact upon the quality of institutional programming.

Docents who are appreciated, who know that they are respected for their efforts and the work they do, have a better “self-image” than those who perceive feelings of ambivalence or disdain. Having a healthy, strong self-image leads to personal confidence, and confidence leads to a willingness to try and to increased chances of success.

Which Factors are Important?

In addition to feeling appreciated, volunteers want to feel competent and qualified to fulfill their responsibilities. Their desire to work with the public and to foster interest in the subject matter demands that they be provided with opportunities for professional development and the resources for improvement and growth.

A Sense of Professionalism. Docents need to feel that they are a professional part of their organization. Feelings of inclusiveness are essential to developing a team spirit. Each new touring season should begin with an opportunity to hear from the institution’s director. As the chief executive officer, the director’s presence before these volunteers conveys respect and transmits an appropriate sense of importance for educational activities. Access to the director should also provide volunteers with an overview of where the institution is heading and how that direction integrates with the institution’s mission.

Competence. Naturally, docent training is of the utmost importance. Training serves several purposes. It gives docents the information base to feel comfortable and confident about their own performance. It provides them with the skills to effectively communicate with various audiences and to fulfill their institution’s public programming goals. And, training satisfies their personal desire to learn more about the subject, which is a strong motivating factor for volunteering.

Docents need to be knowledgeable about their institution’s collections and special exhibitions. In order to gain this level of understanding, docents should meet regularly with the curatorial staff in order to learn about the exhibitions, objects, artifacts, and living things that the institution collects. Curators are the appropriate staff members to explain how exhibition choices are made; how the exhibit theme or focus is revealed; and how objects relate to one another. Curators can also provide docents with all necessary scholarly information, historical background, and scientific principles and theories.

Access to Information. Docents want to feel knowledgeable! They are eager for information; it is one of their main motivating reasons for volunteering. Institutions should provide docents with plenty of routes for acquiring it. Docents should receive copies of handouts, catalogues, handbooks, and monographs. There should be a docent reference area set aside in the library. This area would contain material such as: periodicals and texts that elaborate upon current exhibitions or areas of institutional focus; copies of AAM’s Museum News, AASLH’s History News, or other subject-relevant publications; issues of The Docent Educator ; a copy of The Best of The Docent Educator, pedagogical reference books; and an information exchange where docents can share their lesson plans, anecdotes, and insights.

An Understanding of Teaching. Teachers do not (and should not) use all the information they possess. Information must always be tailored to the audience and presented for an educationally sound purpose. Information that is not put to a higher purpose is reduced to trivia. Therefore, training must encompass educational principles and provide appropriate methodologies. Understanding how to teach and how to effectively communicate with various audiences is training docents should receive from the education department. Education staff should teach by example, modeling the same techniques they expect their docents to employ.

Being an effective and competent educator is primary to being successful and experiencing the rewards inherent in teaching. People whose responsibilities are static tend to become disenchanted more rapidly than those whose responsibilities are dynamic. Teaching is a dynamic process. Merely repeating information is not dynamic, nor is it teaching.

The primary purpose of The Docent Educator is to improve teaching skills. It is the only journal devoted solely to the professional growth of those who teach with institutional collections. Every docent serving in an institutional program should be provided with, or (if economics demand) urged to take out their own subscription to, this publication. There should be regular discussions among volunteers, and with staff, about the topics and techniques examined within each issue’s pages.

Visiting consultants and experts provide docents with an exciting change of pace and a new “voice.” Going to the effort and expense of bringing in a visiting specialist for a workshop increases the volunteers’ feelings of worth. Additionally, it presents perspectives other than those of the immediate staff. The most advantageous visiting guest is one who would reinforce the education department’s goals, speak with knowledge of what docents do, and who can model teaching techniques using the collection directly. Docents also enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow docents. Events that bring docents together, such as field trips to other institutions, travel opportunities, and docent symposiums can be great morale boosters and an opportunity to speak with others who share similar responsibilities.

Showing Appreciation

Docents should be thanked for their efforts and dedication. While volunteers do not work for monetary compensation, they do expect to be valued. Society tends to devalue what comes freely, but in the case of volunteers, such an assumption is insulting and, ultimately, unnecessary. Respecting the fact that time is important and could be put to many purposes, and knowing that these volunteers choose to give of themselves, their time, and their energies, should never fail to impress.

While acknowledging the value of time, let’s not forget that a docent’s time should not be wasted. Make sure that docents are notified of tour cancellations or other shifts in scheduling whenever possible.

Thanking docents can come in many forms — and should! First, and perhaps foremost, is expressing gratitude verbally. That expression should not only come from members of the education department, but also from the director, curators, and trustees who benefit from their efforts. Docents should also be thanked by being provided with materials that make them more successful and their performance more gratifying.

However an institution chooses to do so, saying “thank you” is good form. It is polite and appropriate. Incidentally, but not insignificantly, those who feel appreciated are more likely to go the extra mile when called upon, and far less likely to experience fatigue or premature burn-out.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Giving Thanks,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 2-4.

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