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Volunteer as a Museum Docent and Unlock a Trove of Lifestyle Benefits

Posted by International Living on October 29, 2019 in Volunteering

“Youth is the time for assimilation of wisdom. Old age is time for its application,” said the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Is it any wonder then that so many retirees are finding fulfillment as museum docents? With years of accumulated wisdom, and a thirst to continue learning, retirees are perfect candidates for this essential museum role.

Docents are volunteers who lead tours and programs throughout a museum. They lecture, share information, and engage with visitors. But for many, they get back more than they give.

Meg Poole, program coordinator at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, says that joining a docent program offers many unique benefits. “As a docent, you are engaged with new ideas and information each and every day. On top of learning, being part of a docent program creates a community. Our volunteers attend monthly social meetings, and we also feature a speaker each month who shares information on topics ranging from history to music and art. If you are dedicated to a museum, they will quickly consider you part of the family.”

“On top of learning, being part of a docent program creates a community.”

David Mercier, a volunteer docent at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, says the educational aspect of the job is beyond compare. You not only learn about the art, the artists, and the historical value of the collections, but you also learn about people, as the role of a docent involves being the face of the institution and being present to help interpret the collection for visitors. As David says, “No one likes an empty museum.”

Meg says that she’s amazed by the different walks of life their retired docents come from. “We have retired teachers, doctors, high-ranking military officials, artists, and more. Being a docent engages both sides of the brain. You’re learning so many new and wonderful things, but you’re also challenged to come up with creative solutions in different scenarios. It’s a great way to continue to learn and can help you tap into an area you might never have explored before.

“We have a retired Army veteran who had never worked with children. When he began volunteering I asked if he’d be willing to lead our school program. He was reluctant at first, but after several months of service he shared that he had discovered a new passion. He said that working with kids in retirement had him questioning if perhaps he should have been a teacher. This was so inspiring to me.”

Receive Free Training

More than qualifications, museums are looking for volunteers who are open minded and ready to learn new things. Most museums have a training program in place, which might involve a four-hour training session once a week for a year before you can begin leading tours. The programs are designed to teach volunteers the role, as well as prepare them to deal with a variety of situations.

“Our museum offers two week-long trainings each year,” says Meg, “and then we take a hands-on approach where you shadow tours and programs, co-lead, and then eventually you are on your own. Our philosophy is that we want to get people active as quickly as possible.”

For David, completing a docent training program and working at the museum has helped him develop keen observation skills and greatly increased his knowledge of art. The program has also helped him develop confidence and improve his public speaking skills. His training included visual literacy development, familiarizing himself with the museum’s collections, and acquiring a deeper knowledge of historical art and new teaching styles, as well as guide techniques and how to use interactive education. “Time commitments vary greatly across different institutions,” says Meg. “Some museums might ask for 10 hours a month, while others may say four tours a month. We do not have any specific protocol. Our philosophy is that the program is what you make of it. Some of our volunteers give 400 hours a year, while others give 50. Both are of great value to us!”

How to Become a Docent

Docents are valuable assets to museums, so there are plenty of opportunities available if you want to get involved. Most museums offer a docent program and will have an application form—with all the relevant details—on their website.

The first step is to consider the type of museum you’d like to volunteer for. What subject area interests you the most? Is your proclivity for art, science, or history? Perhaps you have expert knowledge you can share on a certain topic, or you’d like to expand your knowledge of a particular subject.

Also, consider what you want to get out of becoming a docent. If it’s to practice public speaking or simply volunteering, it may not matter so much what you choose. Research local museums and you may find an opportunity with people or in a place that you love, no matter how big or small. You can find the closest museums to you by entering your zip code into MapMyNearest.

Once you’ve chosen a museum, request information about the docent program from the program coordinator. This is the easiest way to get a full understanding of what’s involved and will allow you to make a personal introduction.

If an interview is involved, be prepared. Research the topics of permanent exhibits. Visit the museum and take a tour if possible; read plaques, speak to other docents, and find out the basic information about the items on display.

Written by Paul O’Sullivan