Art Matters Summer 2016
What is it like to be a docent at the Princeton University Art Museum? We work in a treasure house of art and artifacts illustrating five thousand years of world history. Our job is to cherish these pieces and introduce them to our visitors—trying to explain what the art meant to the people who first saw it, and always questioning what added meaning it has for us now. If we’re successful in persuading our visitors that there are no wrong answers, that each viewer’s opinion is right for him or her, that some pieces will appeal and some will repel; if we send groups off eager to visit other museums, knowing that if they’re lonely in a strange city they can find welcome at a museum, then we’ve done our jobs.
Most of our tours are school groups. With preschool classes we show them how a painting tells a story, or we just say, “Look at that red! Can you find a different red?” With elementary school students we persuade them they are ancient Greek or Maya children and watch their faces as we explain away all their modern conveniences. “No electricity? Really?” With high school groups, the trick is to get them to talk (co-opt the ringleader). There’s a new wave in docentry: the docent is not a lecturer but a facilitator. The new watchword is: “Not the sage on the stage, but the guide by the side.” It has become a balancing act between lecturing and listening.
A more private reward is the gift of slow looking, being entitled to settle in and live with the Museum’s collections. Often a painting will step out of its place in art history and insist you pay it more attention. Listen to it. It has something to tell you. And then there are the special exhibitions: Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia; The Olmec World; Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance; a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition; a Wild West one; and most recently Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills. It’s like entertaining foreign visitors and learning about their lives.
Docenting is not a solitary occupation. You could call us a pride, or a swarm, or a query of docents. Being a docent is a continuing education: docents-in-training spend two years being tutored by the associate director for education and a series of mentors. The entire group meets Mondays during the academic year for lectures by curators and visiting scholars, and there are study groups for special exhibitions. Most docents have a favorite gallery or subject and study to prepare reports for the group or to research for gallery talks, public tours, or a children’s Saturday program. The University libraries are open to us, and we are permitted to audit classes in the Department of Art and Archaeology. And we’re always ready for a busman’s holiday to visit another museum.
I joined the Art Museum in 1972, and one of the great rewards over the years has been the ready friendships, some of which have become deep and enduring, surviving departures and distance. And three of the founding mothers present when I joined, who left to work in their careers, kept in touch with the group and have come back to the Museum in retirement—it’s that kind of a group. We’ll hope many former members will return to help celebrate our fiftieth anniversary this coming academic year.
Just by being in the right place at a good time, I got to spend ten years as assistant to the curator of works on paper. It was my privilege to watch professionals at work and to enjoy glimpses of how the Museum operates behind the scenes. It’s magic to watch an object from a storage shelf pass through the hands of the curator, the restorer, the preparators, the lighting techs, and the label writers to become a star feature in a gallery. Best moments: Having my favorite Cézanne watercolor go on view in the Museum with the Pearlman Collection; tutoring docents-in-training and seeing the galleries afresh through their discoveries; and, when in the Museum on a weekend, feeling a small hand touch mine and hearing a voice at my elbow say, “See, Mrs. Grey, I brought my family.”
Marianne C. Grey