Do we docent?

Photo by Martine Martine_Malengret-Bardosh

Photo by Martine Malengret-Bardosh

If you’ve been to PEM, you’ve probably encountered one of our nearly 100 volunteer docents. Maybe you took the Two Merchants Tour to visit Yin Yu Tang and the Gardner-Pingree House with a docent guide, or stumbled across a docent-led group immersed in conversation in one the galleries. Maybe you’ve seen students huddle on the floor turning object labels into found poetry, or learning some Chinese calligraphy with brushes and ink.

It’s almost impossible to spend a day at PEM without seeing this impressive corps of volunteers in action. Docents teach all of our student groups, pre-K to university. They offer public tours of historic houses, special exhibitions and permanent collections every single day. They are the vital circuitry that connects the ideas hatched backstage to real, interpersonal experiences on the museum floor. For a long time, volunteers like them in art museums have been known by the name of “docent.”


Docent training for Future Beauty. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Over the past year, docents and education staff have been meeting, both as a large group and in small discussion groups, to talk about new ideas for volunteering in museum education. We’re planning on growing and enhancing our volunteer program with some new types of group experiences and modes of service. As part of that discussion, we’ve raised the question: Does it still make sense to call education volunteers “docents”?

We’ve had some passionate discussions about this term. Our current docents seem to either love it or hate it. People who think we should continue using the term “docent” say:

  • It has “cachet.” It helps lend a “special status” to volunteers and confers a sense of “dignity.”

  • Unlike “guide,” it’s unique to the museum world.

  • It’s easily explained in one sentence.

  • It’s very widespread. Using the term unites PEM docents with docents at other museums, and it’s the preferred term of the National Docent Symposium Council, the voluntary association of museum docents across the USA.

Those who advocate retiring the name “docent” say:

  • It’s jargon. Since it’s not used outside museums, It has to be explained — and even regular museumgoers may not have encountered the term.

  • It has an “insider” feel. For those who aren’t sure whether they feel at home in a museum yet, introducing an unfamiliar new  term to learn, right off the bat, may seem unfriendly.

  • It sounds “stuffy” and “old-fashioned.”

  • It doesn’t match the titles of other jobs in museums (“guard,” “greeter,”  “educator” “curator”) which are readily understood by the general public.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

In our discussions and debates along the way, we’ve learned a few things about this unique word:

1. It’s fairly new. In museum terms, anyway. Though it’s derived from a Latin word, it doesn’t go back to Roman times. It comes via the German dozent, meaning university lecturer. It doesn’t appear in English before the turn of the 20th century, and then it turns up right in our backyard. A “docent program” was introduced at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1907. Unlike today, it wasn’t a volunteer post: it was “a function, not an office,” in which museum staff took turns offering guide service to any group or student who requested it. But only a few years later, the MFA, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums had expanded these services, adding volunteer docents to meet growing demand. Before long, guide services were widely assigned to volunteers — the great majority of them women, while the majority of paid staff remained male. We should ask ourselves: how much do we still have in common with this history? Are we comfortable with the associations with past practices that this word brings up? How are we evolving this tradition?

2. It’s North American. In Europe, the term almost always refers to university lecturers. If you look up “docent” on Wikipedia, you read: “This article is about academic rank and appointment. For the museum occupation in the US, see museum docent. “ As we increasingly think of ourselves as a global museum, we should ask: does our usage make sense to peers around the world?

3. It’s not used at  all museums. “Docent” is most commonly found at art museums…and zoos. Among art museums who don’t use the term, a common alternative is “gallery educator,” “museum educator,” “gallery guide” or “museum guide.” In history museums, people in similar roles are often called “interpreters.” Some science museums have “explainers.” The charming “cicerone” is unique, if a bit archaic.

Finally, if we weren’t called docents, what would we be called? Guide is probably the most familiar and succinct name for the kinds of service docents provide. But does it give a strong enough idea of their specialties and range? Should we be looking at creative names, maybe taking inspiration from unconventional titles like  Apple’s “Geniuses,” Starbuck’s “Baristas,” and Disney’s “Imagineers?” Could being more playful help us in our quest to re-imagine what docents can do?  What about “Scout,” “Museum Ranger,” or my favorite coinage by PEM’s Visitor Services Director Craig Tuminaro, “Art-tender?” Belly up to the art!

Our conversations aren’t finished, and we’ve got more thinking to do about this question. What’s your opinion? Do you know and love the title “docent?” Prefer a simpler, more familiar word? Or a whimsical, surprising alternative? Opinions welcome. The sure thing is that no matter what they’re called, PEM docents will hold onto their sweet spot at the heart of our public mission. Just don’t call them late for dinner.



  1. Jim Olson says:

    Great post. It is ironic that you mention both Art-tender and cicerone because that latter is now being used to describe certified beer experts. Cicerones are the beer equivalent of sommeliers.

  2. Victoria Caldwell says:

    Great piece Michelle, though interesting how docenting is yet another example of how we as a society continue to undervalue work primarily performed by women. I remain in favor of making a change from volunteer docents to paid gallery guides/museum educators — it would certainly broaden the pool of applicants as PEM seeks to grow the program.

  3. Gregory Herr says:

    I have always liked the term docent and the function they perform. Eavesdropping on docents is one of my museum pleasures — to pick up fascinating tidbits while maintaining the freedom to roam the museum on my own path rather than tied to a group is a pleasure.

    On the question of paid gallery guides vs. docents, I think better to supplement docents with paid guides rather than switch over. Both paths have a lot to offer, and the docents you have, and the docents to come, are treasure troves of information a paid staffer may never learn once their exploration is tethered to a timeclock and paycheck.

  4. Victoria Caldwell says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I love the idea of keeping docents while still hiring some paid gallery guides. And while it may sound like sacrilege coming from a docent, I also prefer eavesdropping to being part of the group when I am at other museums.

  5. Merrylyn Sawyer says:

    Docents are great to listen in on, indeed, yet keeping your own pace without a group. Well said. I have a question. I saw a Frank Benson work once of one woman standing on a bluff, with the sea in the background. She was wearing a white dress cinched in at the waist. The work is just the woman, the dune grass, and the sea behind. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of this work. Does anyone know the painting I”m describing? thanku! yo

  6. Michelle Moon says:

    Hi Merrylyn! Thank you for your comment. The painting you’re describing sounds a little bit like Benson’s “After the Storm,” which is hanging in PEM’s American Decorative Arts gallery. However, details of the women’s dress were different, and this one has a child, so this may not be the one.

    Another really well-loved Benson was last on view here during the show “Painting Summer in New England.” It does have a woman on a bluff in a white cinched-waist dress, but with others. Does this look like the one?

  7. Rosalie Graffeo says:

    Hi Michelle,
    I was unable to find the current docent web site, would you be so kind as to advise me how to do so. We were advised to review schedules and calendar at the last wed. meeting
    thanks much,
    Rosalie Graffeo

  8. Stanley Scott says:

    I am sorry to announce that my father, Seaborn Scott, a former docent at Peabody died on Tuesday of this week. Services are scheduled for Monday, April 25 in Medford at the Gaffey Funeral Home, 43 High Street, Medford, MA, 02155.

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