NEW YORK — Need an expert on pre-Columbian art? Feel an urge to talk in depth about the presidency of Jefferson Davis? Or the childhood of Ernest Hemingway? Got questions about the difference between diesel and steam engines, or the way the Industrial Revolution influenced mankind's sense of time?
If so, help may be near at hand - or at least no farther away than your local museum. If you need an expert, try a docent.
Docent. It's an odd word, and some find it a bit off-putting. Officially defined as a teacher or lecturer, it has come to designate the corps of volunteer guides who help staff many of the nation's museums. But the name does little to convey the special nature of this breed. The best of docents, say museum administrators, are learners, thinkers, sharers, and explorers rolled up into one magnificent volunteer package.
And for many of the people who pursue the work - particularly those who are retired - serving as a docent is almost the equivalent of launching into a second career.
Peter Ashurst, a retired dermatologist who serves as a docent at the Campbell Historic Museum and Ainsely House in Campbell, Calif., says he's gone way beyond the facts he was taught as a docent in training to pursue his own research, tracing the family back to its roots in England and uncovering clues about the design of the house. "I like to have the answer to everything in case I'm asked," he explains. Each tour, he says, "is a challenge."
Jerald Goldberg, a retired geologist and docent at Washington's Dumbarton Oaks - a museum specializing in pre- Columbian and Byzantine art - says he's always reading about pre-Columbian art and travels to South America on his own to pursue his studies. Mr. Goldberg says he considers everything about his work at the museum a plus. "I enjoy the learning, I enjoy the sharing, I like the atmosphere."
Yet, say many in the museum world, finding the lifelong learners who have the time to pursue such jobs is anything but easy. "We have three or four docents but we could use three to four dozen," says Keith Hardison, director of the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in Biloxi, Miss.
Of course, some museums attract these special people effortlessly. At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art - where docents receive a year of intensive training before giving tours - volunteer chairman Ann McIlvaine says the museum has hundreds of applications on file but rarely has an opening in its group of 300 educators. At Dumbarton Oaks, docent turnover is so low that the six-month training class hasn't been held since 1991.
But for smaller museums, and especially those either dealing in more specialized subject matter or located in less urban areas, it's often quite another story. Some find the only way to keep their museums staffed is to pay all workers. "Volunteer? What's a volunteer?" jokes an official at the Gallery Mint Museum (dedicated to the preservation and advancement of numismatic arts) in Eureka Springs, Ark. "I wish I could find some young people to volunteer," says George Canaday. "I'd gladly teach them to do tours." Mr. Canaday is the director and sole docent at the Merchant Marine Museum in Anderson, Ind. When Mr. Canaday's out of town, the museum is forced to shut.
Mary Nelson, volunteer coordinator of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md., says her museum faces the same problem many others do. "We're always short-handed," she says. But there is one unique aspect to her crop of 40-some docents. Whereas the overwhelming majority of museum docents are women, Ms. Nelson's volunteers are "99 percent men." Nelson jokes, "If anyone wants to know where all the men are, I've got them here!"
But as grateful as Nelson is for her current docents, there's another stereotype she wants to break. Many of her docents are senior citizens. She's constantly looking for younger staffers.
Attracting young professionals is a major focus for many volunteer-based museums, says Cynthia Cormier, director of education and curatorial services at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn. Many are having to offer docent training on weekends and evenings in order to accommodate working people. But Ms. Cormier says she finds that in many ways, young professionals need jobs as docents as much as the museums need them.
"People need more than 9 to 5 jobs, real estate, and their kids," says Cormier. "They need an intellectual outlet." And work as a docent, she points out, is an opportunity "to talk, to learn, to give back to the community."
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