Come Tour With Me

On Being a Docent

The Colby Museum relies heavily on its dozens-strong docent corps, which shares the galleries of the Colby Museum with audiences of all sorts. Docents undergo a rigorous training and are continually learning not only about the Museum’s collections and exhibitions but also about strategies to engage with visitors. In this post, docent Bonnie Chamberlain examines both the opportunities and the exciting challenges of being a docent. The staff of the Colby Museum is incredibly grateful to Bonnie and her fellow docents for their dedication to the Museum and for the many ways in which we learn from them.

Docents Bonnie Chamberlain and Vaughn LeBlanc assisting with an art-making workshop for veterans.

What is this work like? Some who aren’t docents may consider the job demanding. But those who do volunteer might use the word “appealing” to describe it instead.

I like to think of myself as a guide, hosting visitors who want to take in this bold and brilliant collection. Daniel Kany, a Maine art critic, has said, “The Colby College Museum of Art is not only Maine’s biggest and best museum but it is top among the most significant and largest college art museums in the United States.” That statement could give pause to anyone who is about to take people through the museum. This is why I call myself a guide, not an educator. I had no art experience in my pre-docent days. (As a side note, while many of the Colby Museum’s docents do have art backgrounds, there are also engineers, librarians, world travelers, pastors, retired doctors and nurses, and interested folks like me.) During our walk through the galleries, the visitors ­and I have a conversation—not a lecture by me but a question-and-answer session. I aim to be objective, not advocating this style or that artist. We all have our favorite styles of art, but we need to see a variety of work to know what those might be. For many, the walk involves being exposed to different kinds of art and this always invokes personal reactions. Of course, there is a great deal of information I do not know. When someone asks me a question I cannot answer, I can say, “What do you think?” or “Later, let’s see if we can find the answer in one of the books in the lobby.”

What the visitors know is varied. The Museum welcomes the general public and a multitude of school groups as well as Colby faculty, students, and staff. Our audiences may be from senior centers or may be members of book clubs or are sometimes visiting professors. It’s not unusual to have visitors who know more than I do, which allows me to learn from them. The school groups are also wide-ranging. Teachers who bring their classes may be looking to meet specific curricular needs or just seeking a general tour. Opportunities are open to all ages, pre-K to high schoolers. Colby is a teaching museum and has always been a community resource.

This all boils down to a few simple docent dos and don’ts:

Do: Be friendly and flexible, act as a good host, know your material.

Do not: Boss folks around, make up stories, touch the merchandise (oh my gosh no).

OK, so maybe knowing the material is not really so simple. I became involved because I wanted to know more about color: how to use it; what emotional effect color would produce; why some combinations feel right, some wrong. I now know all of this and have been given so much more. Since this is a world-class museum, the staff must feel confident that the people on the front line, the docents, are prepared to meet the public. Seminars, workshops, lectures, readings, role-playing, research, weeklong orientations, small and large group practice, and evaluations all combine to arm us with the necessary background and vocabulary. All staff members are supportive and accommodating and open to questions or problems.

Demanding or appealing? If you would like to be involved in the workings of a museum, it’s delightful. I soak up the lectures, learning about the backgrounds and intentions of the artists in the collection. I get lost in research, looking for all the connections. Reflection allows me to think about this work and understand more. I value being able to audit Colby classes, one of the perks of being a docent. Who knew that I would read art books for fun and pleasure? Each month I look forward to our docent meeting, not just for the information but also for the comradeship of other docents, my museum family.

The easiest part is learning about the artists and their work and sharing this information. The hardest part is learning about the artists and their work and sharing this information. I’ll admit that it’s not always easy. I am still apprehensive before each tour. Then, during the tour, I always wonder just how we are going to cover all I had planned in a mere hour. Am I effectively answering questions? Is the group really listening? Did anyone knock a painting off the wall?

Members of the January 2016 docent training cohort with Lauren Lessing, Mirken Director of Academic and Public Programs, and Margaret Aiken, Linde Family Foundation Coordinator of School and Teacher Programs

Certain features have changed during the years I’ve been a docent: the training has a different format, different staff members are involved, docents come and go. Yet there is a viewpoint I hear over and over again. “How do you know so much?” This assessment compliments me, but it’s really a testament to our successful training. I heard it when I first started. That audience was handpicked. I knew those attendees, invited by way of a mass email, would be friendly and considerate. Perhaps they didn’t see the pile of index cards I consulted. With time and meetings, more training, reinforcement and support from Museum staff, plus the underpinning of research, my database grew. I smiled when I heard, “How do you know so much?” while on a spontaneous tour with a group of new docents two weeks ago, knowing these beginners would soon be asked the same question. We listen and share. We listen to share.

The positive feedback, the smiles, the “thank-yous,” the assurances that the guests will be back all point to a job well-done. All part of the appeal.

Come tour with me.