Docents: Lessons from Museum Superstars

by Chloe Dye Sherpe, Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner, WA on

If you work at a small museum, you know that many organizations rely heavily on volunteers. These gracious people may help install exhibits or come in early for programs to set up chairs. Whatever they do for the organization, we all know that we are lucky to have their help! But one group has stood out to me as being the most tenacious and passionate about what they do for the organization: docents.

At my museum (Museum of Northwest Art or MoNA), docents sit at a desk at the entrance of the galleries and greet everyone, everyone! They don’t lead tours, but they do give a brief introduction and try to make all visitors feel welcome. I interact with them almost every day, and lead “docent enrichment” activities and bring them through exhibits before they open. All volunteers have basis needs, but I think it is important to evaluate the needs of each particular group in order to harness their energy and passion. So, here are some things that I have learned during my time working with docents.

Docents are passionate.

This doesn’t need to be said, but I am going to bring it up anyway. We are all busy, so if someone volunteers their time to an organization you can bet that they care about that organization’s mission. Sometimes that passion can be overwhelming; people want to be helpful but sometimes they don’t know the best way to help. I have found that it is best to be as transparent as possible with docents. Tell them what you need and why! If they understand that what you are requesting is in the best interest of the museum, they will readily work with you.

Docents are experts.

We would be foolish to think that any volunteer or staff’s capabilities are only limited to the task that they do for the museum. Most of the docents are MoNA are retired and it may take a few conversations to learn about their career and/or passions, but it is worth it. I have retired librarians, school administrators, scientists, photographers, and more in the docent group. If a docent has an expertise, they might be interested in sharing that with the institution. One docent is a professional photographer, so he readily agreed to take photos of exhibit openings and has been very helpful for exhibit content. Bottom line: take the time to make a connection with your docents.

Docents are donors.

I worked with a Development Director who reinforced the idea that all members of an organization need to exemplify the spirit of philanthropy, which essentially means that we need to treat everyone with care and gratitude. Docents donate their time, so make sure that you thank them. They could also potentially be monetary donors, especially if they feel included in the mission and planning that happens at the institution.

Docents may know more than you about museum visitors.

The docents at MoNA interact more with visitors than I do, so they have valuable information about what guests think about exhibits, the facilities, interactives, and much more. Tell your docents what you need to know about how people are interacting with exhibits and offer them training on evaluation. You might be surprised with the amount of information that they gather!

The bottom line is that we all need to take time to talk to each other about the various aspects of the museum, and this requires effective and constant communication. And if you are a museum docent, thank you for all that you do!

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