WORCESTER — In 1970 an item appeared in The Evening Gazette that caught quite a few interested eyes.
The Worcester Art Museum was launching “a new program to train a corps of volunteer gallery instructors,” under the direction of Richard C. Mühlberger, then the curator of museum education. A class of “approximately 30 women” would meet weekly on Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. starting Sept. 28. through the second week of May. Another class would meet Fridays if the training was over-subscribed. “The principal prerequisites for the program are an interest in art, a desire to communicate and an affection for the Worcester Art Museum,” the announcement said.
“I saw the article and I said, ‘Oh my gosh that’s right up my alley.’ I didn’t take long to apply to the position,” recalled Carole Harmon. However, “There were so many applicants,” she said.
There were 82 female participants rising to the challenge, and the first docent-led tours were offered to college instructors and public-school principals in September 1971.
Fifty years on from the announcement and the first classes, the Worcester Art Museum’s docent program has become an integral part of the museum’s life and mission as docents broaden the experience of nearly 20,000 annual visitors ranging from pre-schoolers to seniors who take a docent-led tour.
“They really help make the museum accessible. It’s really a way to connect with the public,” said Aileen Novick, manager of public and education programs at WAM.
Docents — the word comes from the Latin “docere,” to teach — conduct tours of both the museum’s permanent collections and special exhibitions. “Most of the tours are supposed to be an hour max,” Novick said. “Zip tours” are shorter tours that last 20 minutes. Currently there are 52 touring docents and 14 associate docents (doing tours but not as regularly), along with 250 alumni docents, Novick said.
The volunteers make a big commitment with training now generally running for over a year as they meet with different curators and professors during classes and learn how to interact with the public. Novick said that docents also conduct research projects and are encouraged to create their own tours. “We’re always having continuing education. Docents are people who love learning. We’re always trying to give them more information that’s helpful.”
The number of tours a docent gives can vary. “It really depends on the docent. Usually at least a tour or two a month,” Novick said. There are very busy periods such as when public school students come or when the popular “Flora In Winter” program is running. “Last year we had 800 tour groups booked all done by docents,” she said.
This year the museum is going through an unprecedented time as it has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic since March 13. It is scheduled to reopen to the general public on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
The museum has been putting on monthly education sessions for docents via Zoom during the pandemic, Novick said. Meanwhile, “We’ve tried to keep people really engaged even though we’re closed. We offer different ways to be engaged.” Some docents have been writing museum updates and social media posts and working on online programs and projects, she said.
When the doors to the museum open up again in October, the docents won’t be immediately back conducting tours.
“Not right away in the gallery,” Novick said. There is a lot to figure out in terms of the numbers of people that can be in a group and spacing and social distancing, she noted. Zoom tours focusing on certain works of art and engaging the audience with them are likely to be featured to begin with. “It’s complicated. First, just get to reopen,” Novik said.
Arlene Pedjoe of Holden, a docent since 2014, is keenly anticipating the day she can come back and lead a tour.
“I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to being in the museum again. I really miss that,” Pedjoe said.
Pedjoe was an art teacher at public schools in Millbury and Sterling, teaching grades three to eight, and was also co-owner with her husband of John Robert Powers school franchises before selling them and retiring. Besides being a docent she has stayed busy as a substitute art teacher in the Wachusett Regional School District and also at the Bancroft School, but hasn’t been in a classroom since the pandemic.
On deciding to become a docent she said, “Having been a teacher for many years I missed being with students. My background is art, so it made sense. I retired and I wanted to do something that was meaningful to me.”
Her training period at that time was 18 months. “I had fantastic training,” she said.
As for leading tours, “I absolutely love it and I’ve missed it. I’m more comfortable hands-on. I just like to see people and the kids in front of me.” During busy periods, Pedjoe would sometimes do 10 to 12 tours a month. Along the way, she sought to improve her skills as a docent. “You want to keep it as fresh as you can. With the children I would have them pose as the person in the painting and ask them how they feel. You can’t be stagnant. You have to keep it fresh and entertaining with adults as well. They may have more questions but thy like to hear the stories behind the paintings as well.”
WAM brings all the fourth grade of the Worcester Public Schools to the museum for tours, Novick said, and there is also a Head Start program that brings pre-schoolers in to create their own works of art.
For the fourth-graders, docents encourage students’ “critical thinking skills, how to look at art, and make their own interpretations of art,” Novick said. To look at it another way, “The fourth grade is really a fun program for us.”
WAM has docent-led tours for many other school groups up to and including area colleges. “Worcester has so many students. We really do try to get the students over here,” Novick said. WAM also develops content for teachers and professors.
Pat Dupré remembers overhearing one boy talking to a friend at the end of one of her school tours when she was still new as a docent. “He said, ‘That wasn’t boring at all.’ That went a long way to encouraging me.”
Dupré was a nurse when she applied to the docent program. A friend had been in a previous class and “it looked like such a good program and fun … I was naive enough to think I could do that. The first time I applied I was turned down because I absolutely had no background in art.”
Still, she did graduate from the 1989 docent class. “I loved doing the reading. I loved doing the research. I worked 3 to 11 and the classes were in the morning. We had very prominent art teachers then we’d do our own research,” she said.
“When I started doing tours I was petrified but I enjoyed it.”
The museum’s “Flora In Winter” program “is a favorite of mine,” she said. “It really was a privilege. It was joy to me. I guess that’s why I’ve been there so long. I’ve slowed down some now. I will go back. The museum is a very welcoming place. There’s something for everybody there. The museum’s very much more busy than it used to be.”
Dupré keeps thank-you notes and has one from a girl who wrote, “‘I like the way you do things just for fun.’ That sums it up for me.”
Harmon said she still helps out at WAM. “I’m a Worcester girl. I grew up in Worcester.” Then she got married and she and her husband worked around the country before settling back in Worcester around 1969/70. “I was looking for something enjoyable to volunteer for. It was perfect for me. It was just something that was a great outlet for me. I have never regretted it,” Harmon said.
Mühlberger conducted his classes in the galleries to give a knowledge of the museum’s permanent collection. “His way of doing it was going from one gallery to the other.” There were also supplemental readings and lectures.
“I was introduced to the world of art by a group of wonderful people,” Harmon said.
Harmon and her husband had four children, but she found a way to be an active docent. “I’m a good volunteer. I’m dedicated,” she said. These days, “I’ll help out with a few different projects. I’m not signing up for any lengthy tours but I keep going.”
Novick said the majority of docents are retired. “They have the time now, but we do have about eight docents that are younger and still working so its kind of a nice mix,” she said.
Leading a 60-minute tour means that you have to the physical ability to do it, regardless of age. “It’s very good exercise. A lot of walking and a lot of stair climbing,” Dupré said.
The 1970 newspaper announcement was quite specific in that the classes would be for women. But men have joined the ranks of docents since then.
“We now have quite a few. It has really expanded. We have about 12 men,” Novick said.
When Paul Mahon, professor of biology emeritus at Assumption College, retired from teaching in 2007, becoming a docent at WAM seemed a logical step. While his background is in science, he has also been a collector of Chinese art for more than 40 years. Also, “When I retired I was member of the museum and I loved the museum,” he said.
Being a docent, “You teach these wonderful things that are right in front of you — and no grading, so it’s great.”
Last year he did 104 tours. “It’s good exercise both for the body and mind,” he said.
He recalled leading a group of Cub Scouts on a tour who were also being accompanied by their parents. After praising one Scout for correctly remembering a detail Mahon had described on a Roman mosaic, the boy’s father told him later that his son now wanted to become an archeologist. After leading a tour of visiting adults from Scotland, Mahon later learned that they were aristocrats — Lords and Ladies. “They were all very interested (about WAM),” Mahon said.
He will often walk through his tour in advance. Works at the museum are “constantly being refreshed,” and an object that was in a given place one day may not be there the next, he said. “It takes a lot of preparation and time to do a good tour.”
With his science background Mahon has also worked on STEAM tours and programs and enjoys training fellow docents for STEAM tours.
There is certainly a camaraderie among docents that evidently goes back a long way.
“Wonderful. Never any conflict. That’s what was remarkable about it,” Harmon said.