Docents' toolbox: Facts, props, wit

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

Docents are the middlemen of culture, the joking, back-slapping salesmen who act as intermediaries between dusty artifacts and fidgeting, often reluctant, culture consumers who have buses or cruise ships to catch.

Docents at the Alaska State Museum hoard a patter of history-related one-liners, don sea otter pelts as serapes, or tote a compressed brick of tea. One docent wields a four-foot slab of baleen as a pointer.

Hands-on props such as birchbark baskets and hanks of sinew help break the ice with museum visitors, said docent program coordinator Mary Irvine.

Dry wit is another ice breaker, Irvine said, particularly as wielded by docent John Burdick.

Burdick, 76, a retired professor of engineering, is serving his second year with the museum. Last summer, he interpreted the summer's blockbuster exhibit of Yupik Eskimo masks, Agayuliyararput: Our Way of Making Prayer.

This summer, Burdick is concentrating his wit on interpreting the Looking Forward/Looking Back centennial exhibit, which chronicles the museum's first 100 years.

Burdick said he was flattered into volunteering. He enjoys the work, he said, because he has learned quite a bit, and the people coming in are usually very interesting.

Besides, he joked, I get to talk without people interrupting me.

With only 11 full-time staff, Irvine said docents and other museum volunteers are not mere decorations. They are integral to the mission and goals of the museum. The duties of the two dozen docents are to interpret the story that is Alaska, Irvine said.

The museum allows docents to be creative with their spiels.

Some museums script their docents, Irvine said, but we allow them to craft their own tours.

Some docents are old hands. After 18 years, Paulette Simpson has risen to the position of docent educator. Trainings are held each spring on Saturday mornings for about seven weeks. Training changes to accommodate the year's new exhibits, which range from Russian America to mining, from the Gold Rush to maritime history.

A decade ago, docents typically zipped visitors through the entire museum in 45 minutes. Todays approach is more leisurely and personalized.

Now docents specialize in interpreting particular galleries. Its great because their enthusiasm comes through, Irvine said.

Diane Oliphant, a docent for five years, has a favorite method she calls throwing out the hook and seeing if they catch it.

For example, she'll say, This is a kashim. Its where men and boys lived so the men could teach the boys things.

Then she pauses to see if anyone grabs the hook and asks, What do they teach? or Can the women visit? or How old are the boys when they go there?

Shell flourish the embossed tea brick (a Russian trade item) and ask visitors to guess what it is. Dung, charcoal, or printing block, they'll say. Hands-on items particularly are successful with school groups and people with disabilities, Oliphant said.

During the summer, the museum is a bee hive, averaging 800 visitors a day.

There are only three of us on staff in the galleries, so its absolutely necessary for us to have docents to help us, Irvine said.

Some docents greet visitors. Others are tour guides. Still others are behind-the-scenes researchers.

Learning all about Alaska is daunting, but, as Irvine said, If you waited to learn until you knew everything about a subject, you would never start.

Furthermore, she encourages docents to say, I don't know. They have an open line to curator of collections Steve Henrikson. They also keep postcards on hand and ask visitors to pen a question and their address.

Oliphant said the most enjoyable part of her role as a docent is meeting people.

Asking the people from Ohio if they brought buckeyes, the people from Virginia if they brought hams, or cheese from Wisconsin, she said. That gets them to laugh.

And then they're ready to learn.

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