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.”
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.
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.