The McNay Art Museum, San Antonio Museum of Art and the Briscoe Western Art Museum rely on dedicated, well-trained volunteer docents to lead thousands of children and adult visitors on group tours through the museums' galleries each year. About 200 docents led more than 40,000 visitors in guided tours during the 2014-2015 school year at the three museums combined, and the demand for docents is growing.
So what exactly is a docent? Derived from the Latin word docere meaning “to teach,” docents captivate visitors of all ages in an interactive learning experience during museum tours.
All three museums are actively recruiting docents for fall training classes. To apply for the McNay Museum docent program, email email@example.com before the May 15 deadline; individuals interested in the docent positions at the Briscoe Western Art Museum should apply here; to apply for the San Antonio Museum of Art's fall 2016 docent class, contact Chris Torgerson at 210-978-8138.
What Do Museums Look for in Docents?
“You don’t have to be a modern art expert to come join us,” said Katherine Carey, director of education at the McNay Museum. “We’ll train you. We look for people who are proactive, because those are the docents motivated to research and keep learning about art.”
At any museum, docents should be ready and willing to learn more about the subject matter.
“Being a curious person is probably the number one requirement,” said McNay docent JoAnna Been. “You get asked a question on tour and when you don’t know the answer, you’re driven to go find it. You’ll never forget that and over time, you build up your knowledge.”
Strong communication skills are a plus, since docents must work effectively with children, students and adults in group situations.
“We learned the elements of art and how to tell a story about the artwork using terms the students could understand so they can relate it to their own lives,” McNay docent Renee Smith said.
A bit of performance art also helps docents make storytelling about art pieces memorable for museum visitors so they learn and remember new facts.
Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a docent at the San Antonio Museum of Art since 2013. When I tell young children about Egyptian mummies, I hunch over to share with them the secret Egyptians never wanted revealed, since the mummification process was never described in Egyptian records. Children are usually hooked once I start describing the secrets of mummification, and they tend to remember and share details when they return with their families. The San Antonio Museum of Art provides a free family pass to all school tour groups.
The bottom line — no background, education or experience in art is necessary to become a docent. The most important qualities needed are a love of art, people, storytelling and learning, as well as the ability to commit time to both the training and to giving tours.
Benefits of Becoming a Docent
The desire for meaningful service, to reach out and share with others one’s love of art drives many to sign up.
“Once I started to lead tours, I became painfully aware how few children have ever set foot inside a museum,” San Antonio Museum of Art docent Elisa Denham said. “It’s a powerful motivation to give the best tour I can to help make their first experience memorable.”
Others, including myself, become docents to learn more about art.
“I came to SAMA to see the Matisse exhibit and found a brochure about becoming a docent during my visit,” said San Antonio Museum of Art docent Joyce Hyde. “Training as a docent is like getting a Masters in Art History for free.”
Many docents love teaching and want to try it or continue teaching after retirement.
“As a former teacher, I wanted to help kids get involved with art and history and becoming a docent gave me that opportunity,” San Antonio Museum of Art docent Connie Montoya said.
Docents are sometimes drawn to a specific institution because of an interest in their collections, like those drawn to the McNay’s modern art. For those intrigued by how history intersects with art, the collections at both the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Briscoe provide ample opportunities. The training, field trips, opportunities for continued learning and ability to take part in museum events are additional benefits.
“We focus on visitor participation in experiencing the art and our docents are vital to that engagement,” said Katie Erickson, director of education at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “In order to engage our visitors, we continue to invest in our current docents and to recruit new ones.”
If you’re looking to meet interesting people, then becoming a docent will certainly fit the bill. Docents come from all walks of life – retired teachers, dentists, chaplains, engineers, architects, singers, musicians, artists and art collectors become docents – and that only scratches the surface.
“I was surprised at how much I learned being a docent, and not just from the training,” Briscoe docent Julie Beck said. “The other docents have such specialized knowledge, such as weapons experts who can talk about the types of guns in our gun cases.”
I recently learned something new from Terry Gray Chandler – recipient of the 2015 Texas Cattlewomen of the Year award– and her story about ranching as it developed in South Texas.
“I love Western history and sharing this knowledge with others,” said Chandler, a Briscoe docent. “As a way to reach out to San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) kids who are but one generation removed from being country kids, I explain to them the world of ranching in which their grandparents grew up.”
Chandler’s deep knowledge of ranch life and Western history was the perfect match for the Briscoe Western Art Museum.
“Ranching as we know it today started as an outgrowth from our missions in South Texas, because they had so much land to manage,” Chandler said. “That’s why so many ranching terms are in Spanish — from the Spanish raising stock cattle at missions in the San Antonio River valley from San Antonio to Goliad.”
Recruitment: Museums Want You
Docent demographics are changing. Museums are increasingly willing to work with docent availability, and are attracting younger volunteers, and individuals from all types of backgrounds.
“This year we recruited our youngest docent to date, an 18-year-old,” Erickson said. “We are flexible and work with college students and professionals who are still working, which explains why we’re looking at the possibility of offering training to accommodate these docents.”
Museums typically recruit over the summer and docents' training schedules mostly coincide with the fall start of the school year.
“Docents are our ambassadors,” said Jenny Chowning, Briscoe director of education and programs. “We often forget that they are volunteers because they are so dedicated and so professional in their approach to touring.”
The final benefit to being a docent is that you’ll inevitably have behind-the-scenes experiences not typical for someone outside the art world. When museum personnel lifted the clear case to check on humidity settings for a 3,000 year old Egyptian coffin at the San Antonio Museum of Art, for a moment I could smell cedar wood — the secret scent of ancient mummies, a secret I could share on tour.
Top image: McNay docent Barbara Bell leads tour with teens. Photo courtesy McNay Art Museum.