Lifelong Learners

By: Emily Fritz, youth and family program manager on May 22nd, 2024

docent (noun): a person who acts as a guide, typically on a voluntary basis, in a museum or art gallery

In the past 30 years, I myself have endured and enjoyed many of my own personal docent trainings. My mother always helped my younger sister and I understand the importance of hearing history from others and making note of it. For my entire life, she has been one of the family members who sits and listens, takes care of family gravestones with my great aunt to gain knowledge of our genealogy, or ventures across the country to spend time with relatives and hear their stories. Even as I write this, I can hear her reminding me that someday those people will be gone and the only way we will keep that history alive is by taking the time to listen while they are here.

This past Monday, May 13, fellow educator Rachel Hausmann-Schall and I led the Museum’s summer docent training session focused on Women Reframe American Landscape, an exhibition filled with history that has long been forgotten. Training includes a PowerPoint presentation, artist videos, gallery questions, and usually a fair amount of laughter. As we talked to our docent corps — thirty-eight people strong — about the women in this exhibition who are finally getting the recognition they deserve and previewing our upcoming new docent class (more on that later) I found myself wondering why some of our longest tenured docents joined the group in the first place.

Museum educators Rachel Hausmann-Schall and Emily in Women Reframe American Landscape with docents.

Museum educators Rachel Hausmann-Schall and Emily in Women Reframe American Landscape with docents.

For Bev Smith and Boo Force — members of the 1980 docent class — the program looked much different than it does today. Forty-four years into their tenure, I asked them what the program was like when they started. Bev said she “moved to Wausau in 1979 and when [she] learned about the docent program, as a 4th – 6th grade schoolteacher, knew [she’d] found a niche for [herself].” Although there were members who were already established in the docent corps, she noted that “there were only three of us in the class of 1980.” They had to learn every detail of each artwork in the collection to prepare for the “comprehensive written exam that followed” their training. As there were very few tours scheduled at that time, their role resembled the greeter role today. “We’d sit on the curved sofa in what is now the Decorative Arts gallery and watch for anyone to come through the front door; if interested, we’d give an overview of the Museum and offer to give a tour.” Luckily, Bev also noted that there were typically two of them scheduled together so there was always someone to chat “museum business” with.

Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum Docent Corps with Bev Smith and Boo Force.

Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum Docent Corps with Bev Smith and Boo Force.

This summer we will once again welcome a new class of docents, in a five-week orientation focused on sharing the Museum’s history, learning about art appreciation, and developing tour giving techniques. These topics will help them be successful as they take on Birds in Art in the fall as fully trained docents. It will be my first opportunity to work alongside educator Rachel Hausmann-Schall in training a new group of people to join our mighty crew. Although there isn’t a written exam anymore, I hope there will be many more stories shared about why people join, the experiences they bring, and the memories they keep. Maybe we will even bring down the curved sofa again!

If you are interested in volunteering, whether as a greeter or docent, please email or call 715.845.7010.

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