Created on Sunday, 22 September 2013 Written by KEVIN JOY, The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As a dozen visitors examined the cityscapes, family portraits and boxing-ring scenes by Columbus-born painter George Bellows, Susan Whitaker stood ready to offer guidance and historical perspective.
Columbus Museum of Art volunteer Susan Whitaker, guides visitors through a tour of new Bellows exhibit Aug. 25 at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio. Whitaker, a docent at the Columbus Museum of Art for 25 years, has heard all types of reactions to various masterpieces on display. (AP Photo)
Whitaker, a docent at the Columbus Museum of Art for 25 years, has heard all types of reactions to various masterpieces on display.
"After a kid sees Monet's Mediterranean coast of France with a pink seashore and describes it as ham salad, you always have that ham salad in the back of your mind," said Whitaker, 61, of Westerville. "It's always interesting and wide-open for discussion."
A visit to most any cultural institution in town yields the opportunity to meet a docent.
The word is derived from the Latin docere, meaning "to teach."
And docents do just that.
"We couldn't run the building without them," said spokeswoman Jaclyn Reynolds of COSI Columbus, which relies on such seasoned unpaid helpers for explanatory duties, ranging from the hair-raising electrostatic generator to the popular "rat basketball" games.
Docents become the faces of places.
The training, then, is typically extensive.
At the Wexner Center for the Arts, where a group of about 20 incoming docents is accepted just once a year, newcomers enroll in a weekly Friday class during the fall semester at Ohio State University.
The course can be taken for credit — an option established several years ago to attract more students.
In the coming weeks, the class will explore the facilities — including the almost-completed Billy Ireland Cartoon Library — and tackle public-speaking basics via a workshop with the OSU Theater Department.
Ted McDaniel, director of jazz studies at OSU, will offer docents a private lecture for perspective before the Sept. 21 opening of the exhibit "Blues for Smoke."
"We really learn about the fundamentals of looking at art: How do you interpret something? How do you guide the public in having a really engaging experience?" said Tracie McCambridge, educator for teacher and docent programs at the Wexner Center.
The primary role of a docent, she said, is to serve as "an efficient bridge between the artist and gallery and visitors."
At the Columbus Museum of Art, a class of 30 new docents is chosen every other year. The two-year commitment involves nine months of course work, including a research project.
The collective of 120 docents is expected to answer any question and handle tours for any group, from kindergartners to senior citizens.
Still, the museum doesn't "style docents as experts on content," said Rachel Trinkley, assistant director of education. "They are co-learners."
A similar approach is employed at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
There, according to volunteer coordinator Tracey Barnes, the 12 docents (known as "interpretive guides") are trained in botany, butterflies and more — but as conversationalists, "not walking encyclopedias."
The job, after all, is meant to be gratifying — a notion visibly reflected at the Kelton House Museum & Garden and Ohio Village, both history-conscious venues whose docents wear period-specific clothing.
Kelton House docents often find or create additional Civil War-era pieces to embellish a look, director Georgeanne Reuter said.
The same applies to the circa-1863 village, whose classroom-trained "residents" range from doctors to dressmakers who come up with family trees and personal histories to share.
Commitment requirements vary among establishments, although most work around schedules — with a mandate of just a few hours a month.
And perks are typically provided: retail discounts, perhaps, or free admission. Wexner Center docents are privy to special meet-and-greets with featured artists, such as photographer Annie Leibovitz.
At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the docent program is reserved for exemplary veteran volunteers. About 10 are invited every year to join a docent pool numbering about 260.
During five weeks of training, they are schooled in all regions of the zoo before becoming tour guides, lending help behind the scenes or — in some cases — assuming a more delicate role.
David Welsh, a docent for 20 years, enjoys preparing grapefruit, broccoli and celery for the zoo gorillas and monkeys. He has also pulled overnight "birth watch" shifts involving pregnant animals.
Recently, he found himself simply talking to African crowned-crane chicks. As a result, after the opening of the Safari Africa area next year, the winged creatures won't fear human guests.
"They have a pretty lush life at the zoo," said Welsh, 68, of the North Side. "It's very rewarding."