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Taming Your “Wild” Docents

by Andy Albertson on

It seems you can’t go a week without encountering a museum-related article in mainstream media. While this should be good for our “industry,” generally speaking, said articles are satirically toned, often with biased language that steers the reader astray rather than presenting two-sided information allowing them to arrive at educated conclusions – or at least inspiring them to look deeper, perhaps pondering their own experiences in museums or looking for other sources on the matter.

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Docents Gone Wild” is no exception. One look at the headline and I expected with anticipation to read about docent organized after-hours bordeaux-fueled wet cardigan contests in orchid-filled sculpture gardens.

When you dig deeper – and please do – you find a poorly researched, albeit humorous, article that could have been really good, but fails to address that docents are humans, mostly unpaid and under-appreciated, and more easily terminable for infractions than paid staff.

To address the author’s first anecdote about a fat-shaming, pompous tour guide in Hawaii, the solution is rather simple: WALK AWAY. No adult – regardless of knowledge on a particular subject – need tolerate a rude, blatantly biased windbag. Despite the necessity of a controlled environment, museums are not prisons, where every move is controlled and inmates, er visitors, are led like cattle through hallways and communal areas. Visitors are free to leave a tour at any time.

The author’s observation that baby boomer volunteers may be difficult to control is fair, but let’s not forget that volunteers are human beings, each bringing different life experiences to the table, and frankly, less likely to be as openly opinionated and grouchy as their paid supervisors upstairs. The key difference is volunteers are paid nothing, rarely – if ever – consulted when it comes to establishing or altering policy though they may have lived through several regime changes, and often seen as readily disposable (I’m looking at you, Hirschhorn).

This fall, I will embark on an intensive 25-session training of new volunteers. In looking over syllabi from the past two decades, it is clear that content comprises 90% or more of training time, with very little emphasis placed on the actual practice of leading a dynamic tour and the requisite skills of quickly assessing your group, its needs, and its level of knowledge on the subject. These are not easily developed skills – though many retired civil servants, teachers, and the like already possess them – but are critical, and should be as emphasized and enhanced as possible within the time constraints of a training program.

Almost a year into my new gig – with reining in those “rogue” docents as one of my responsibilities – I know that some are more flexible than others, but that constructive criticism is more likely to be taken as such when approached in a friendly, creative manner. Docent coordinators should not be afraid to have a discussion about delivery of misleading or incorrect information, too much time spent in one gallery of the museum that happens to be of more interest to the volunteer than the average Joe, or blatantly dismissive behavior toward visitors. As museum staff expects to be evaluated on a routine basis, my docents – many retired doctors, lawyers, engineers, and nuclear physicists livng in posh Santa Fe – expect the same, whether it’s a formal process or an informal one.

If every museum professional didn’t have at least one volunteer “horror story” – and let’s keep perspective: there are a wide range of infractions ranging from suggesting that Washington slept in your historic New England house when he was fighting at Valley Forge up to poking American Gothic with your wooden pointer – we’d be doing something wrong. If your volunteers are acting inappropriately, stop them. Sit down over coffee and have a frank discussion referencing the materials and any contracts signed during initial trainings or subsequent institutional policy updates. We needn’t feel like we’re being held hostage by individuals who are philanthropically connected or so devoted to their performances that constructive criticism might cause them to quit. I have yet to encounter a docent who doesn’t regularly acknowledge that they are volunteering to “make the staff’s life easier” or “because I just love to share what I know with visitors,” which goes to show their motivation for volunteering is rather selfless and more about making a difference.

At the end of the day, older volunteers bring an air of sophistication to an institution. In more than a decade of recruiting, training, guiding, and working with docents to improve their tours, I’ve never had one show up to work in shorts like the young man in the photo in the WSJ article – who, incidentally, is a replacement for last fall’s unexpectedly fired aged Hirschhorn docents. Seems like he might be the one who views his post at one of the most renowned museums in the nation as a wild spring fling.

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