A passion for sharing


POSTED: Tuesday, September 29, 2009

They come from eclectic backgrounds, are of various ages and have different reasons for their service, but museum docents all have one thing in common: a love of sharing knowledge.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, a docent is a highly educated, volunteer tour guide. Whether it's a 19th-century American painting at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the latest sculpture by a Japanese artist at the Contemporary Museum, a traveling dinosaur show at Bishop Museum or a feathered cape at Iolani Palace, museum docents provide instant facts and can tell stories about a specific piece.

“;I'm hooked on that high of sharing information and having someone get excited about history because of my tour,”; says Zita Cup Choy, who became a docent at Iolani Palace in 1978 and has since been hired as its docent educator.

“;Docents are the ambassadors of a museum,”; says Quala-Lynn Young, curator of education at the Contemporary Museum. “;Contemporary art is not always very accessible, but visitors say they get so much out of our docent-led tours that (their visit) becomes a richer experience. Docents are extremely important. They're the backbone of our education department.”;

Speaking of education, becoming proficient in a museum's collections requires a huge commitment from these volunteers.

At the Hawaii State Art Museum, training is four months; the Contemporary Museum's is seven. Bishop Museum's training varies greatly because the museum's exhibits are so varied.

Docents for Hawaii Hall, which houses Hawaiian artifacts, undergo 36 hours of training, while guides for the new, touring dinosaur exhibit get briefed in just an hour.

Iolani Palace's training can be both intensive and extensive: A recent summer training required 110 hours of education spread over 13 weeks, plus 40 hours of volunteering as a “;guardian,”; a room sitter who answers questions.

At the Contemporary Museum, the learning never ceases because the museum's focus is on new art.

“;The docents here are unique,”; Young says. “;Every three months, we have a new exhibition, so they're constantly learning about new artists, ideas and emerging thoughts in the field. Our docents must love contemporary art enough to go through all this training.”;

The academy training is also extensive. Docents there must undergo a two-year training program with weekly meetings. They also receive continual refresher courses and are evaluated every three years.

Its program is hopping: The academy runs up to 60 tours weekly, for school groups, adults and Japanese speakers. School tours are sometimes large and require up to four docents, so it takes quite a number of docents to keep the wheels turning.

“;The academy now meets state benchmarks in fine art, social studies, literacy, and math and science,”; says Betsy Robb, curator of education, of the school tours. “;So we schedule fewer tours than we used to each day, but it's an in-depth experience.”;

The academy has about 120 docents, with about 50 who regularly volunteer. Iolani Palace has 63, with 40 who are “;active,”; and the Contemporary Museum has 42 docents.

Within each museum, there are docents who have become legendary either for length of service, notable dedication or a special contribution.

Susan Hogan, Hawaii State Art Museum's educator, recalls a former docent, Kathleen Meehan, who came to the museum with a background in public art.

“;She worked on identifying public art in the Capitol District. Her efforts helped produce a walking tour map, which educated the public about the role of public art in Hawaii,”; Hogan says.

Cup Choy of Iolani Palace is such a source of enthusiasm and knowledge that she was recently auctioned off at a palace fundraiser.

“;You can point to any item — a door stop or a painting in a corner — and Zita can tell you what it is,”; raves Lance Rae, chair for the palace's Royal Garden Party benefit that was held last week. “;I auctioned a private tour and lunch with Zita. She's from the original class of volunteers; she now runs the program. And in her spare time, she volunteers at Washington Place. I call Zita one of the palace's living treasures.”;

Over at the Contemporary Museum, artist Allyn Bromley was one of the planners of the museum, and she's served as a docent for 22 years. She is also a museum trustee.

“;I was part of the early stages of planning with (founder) Laila Twigg-Smith,”; Bromley recalls. “;We sat around on her lanai to talk about a museum of contemporary art. I said I didn't have any idea of how to start a museum, but other folks said, 'None of us do.'”;

Today, Bromley is a respected artist and the museum will feature a retrospective of her work next year. She says docent work has helped feed her artistic sensibilities.

“;It's a motivational factor for me personally, as an artist. I respond greatly to the current things I see. Those of us around (contemporary art) can't help but be influenced by that.”;

Bromley says the most memorable experiences as a docent come when a new exhibit is in-house. That's when the most learning takes place. Artists, curators and academics share their knowledge, but it's also up to the docents to learn about the show.

“;We have to do research. We have to be careful of our facts and interpretations. I like that idea that we're held responsible for validity. ... That constant learning process is great,”; she says.

“;I think of my museum service as community service. I love interacting with people, opening them up to contemporary art, to that stretch. I like introducing them to that stretch.”;





        To inquire about docent programs:

» Honolulu Academy of Arts: Call Aaron Padilla at 532-3621 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» The Contemporary Museum: Starting May 2010, call Quala-Lynn Young at 237-5217


» Iolani Palace: Call Zita Cup Choy at 522-0841 or e-mail educator@ iolanipalace.org


» Bishop Museum: Call Kawehi Brandow at 847-8239 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)