What is a Museum Docent?

To be a docent means more than the dictionary definition:

“An individual who leads guided tours, especially at a museum or art gallery.”

Yes, a docent is a tour guide, but much more.  As a docent, you make a link between patrons and the collection of artifacts they came to see.  Through the docent’s eyes, patrons can experience more, learn more and have fun in the process.

A docent more than anyone shows the face of the Museum to visitors.  Wonderful as the Museum’s collection is, it is mute and inanimate. The best memories patrons take away from their experience will be of the people who made the experience “come alive.”

A docent may bring a background of expertise, or learn on the job, or a combination. You will have many opportunities to:

  • give an anecdote
  • state a fact
  • explain a concept
  • answer a question

In addition, the following qualities are helpful in developing a rapport and connection with the patrons:

  • interesting delivery or speaking style
  • humorous
  • self-effacing
  • listening

Listening and responding conversationally to audience questions and opinions gives everyone permission to open up and relax in a non-threatening atmosphere.  Feel comfortable turning over the floor for a patron’s “war story” or observation…

…but keep the flow going by continuing along to another exhibit or another topic of interest…

The 1% Rule

If you learn only 1% of the information underpinning the Museum’s vast collection, that will be adequate to inform you for your life’s work as a Museum Docent.

Convey your treasure trove of knowledge in clear, concise language.  Replace jargon with common terms.  Ask questions occasionally to engage the audience and test your communication skills:

  • “Can you guess…?”
  • “Have you seen…?”
  • “What can we compare this to?”
  • “What do you think will happen?”

Familiarization with the Collection

An easy approach to learning more about the Collection is to focus on a topic of personal interest, e.g., electrostatics, the genesis of radio, or children’s learning (or all three…)

  • Read or browse books on the subject matter
  • Listen to other “tour guides”
  • Interview the collectors
  • Ask questions

As a docent, you comprise skills and knowledge of culture, history and innovation that few other people can claim.  To convey knowledge and learning in an entertaining manner does more for the patrons’ Museum experience than anything else.  Make it personal; make it fun.  Watch the smiles.


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