June 24, 2015; Wall Street Journal


It’s hard to know what was more entertaining—the Wall Street Journal’s article by Ellen Gamerman about volunteer “docents gone wild” or the voluminous commentary the article got on the Journal site and others. Gamerman’s focus is on Baby Boomer docents, with stories of out of control museum tour guides aged 65 and older. For example, she references the experience of Kat Braz, a graphic designer from Indiana, who visited the Iolani Palace in Honolulu only to encounter a docent who criticized people on the tour for being fat and for not knowing historical trivia. “I’ve never had anybody be so rude before,” Braz said.

Baby Boomers as volunteers is a big thing recently, and docent slots at museums seem to be hot placements for recently retired and highly educated Boomers. Managing these volunteers is proving to be a challenge for some institutions confronted, according to Gamerman, by “docents flouting their supervisors, misstating facts, touching the art, and other infractions.”

“There’s been an uptick in ‘docents gone wild’ moments,” said Maggie Guzowski, who runs the arts employee blog, “When You Work at a Museum.” It is enough of a problem that the American Alliance of Museums at its annual conference devoted a session titled “Waking Up from Volunteer Nightmares” to the wild docent experience. Some of the stories Gamerman cites from the conference included one docent terrifying small children with “graphic commentary” about World War II and a husband-and-wife docent team that spent the entire museum tour bickering. One museum director characterized the problem of docents’ lecturing museum directors and opposing their directives as “like Mutiny on the Bounty.”

Much of this topic actually concerns volunteer management, an issue that seems to get less and less attention and support in nonprofit ranks than it should. While museums do pay a great deal of attention to the selection of docents, focusing on their knowledge of the subject matter, often requiring significant study of applicants, the institutions’ structures for managing the volunteer docents seem to be a bit weaker, and perhaps more so with Baby Boomer volunteers, who might feel a little more empowered than they should. For example, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Gamerman writes that “some volunteers revolted last year after the museum tried to overhaul its docent program…to reach a broader audience and attract some younger tour guides…includ[ing] direct outreach to college-aged students interested in arts-related careers.”

“There was this culture of resistance,” said Hirshhorn spokesperson Kelly Carnes. “They really felt entitled after spending enough time here not to make any changes from the way they had previously done things.”

Some of the docents, however, felt forced out. “A lot of us were insulted,” said Laurie Nakamoto, 65, a Hirshhorn docent from Arlington, Virginia. “They did nothing to make us feel good about ourselves as docents.”

Part of the management issue is the extent to which volunteers are entitled to the kinds of protections that employees get. Generally, the answer is that they aren’t, but there is an increasing focus in some states about what should be employee-like protections for volunteers. In the case of the wild Baby Boomer docents, the challenges may be even tougher. Management challenges cited in the Gamerman story included docents simply making up stories about exhibits because they thought they might be more interesting—in a Charleston museum, one docent said, “Well, I’m going to tell you this and I just made it up, but it could be true”—and one particular docent who, apparently concerned about artwork with nudity, put an “x” on every piece of art, 29 nine of them, in her museum where there was an exposed breast.

While Gamerman’s stories were often funny and sometimes horrific, the issues are real, as support for volunteer management is hardly a top priority in the sector. Everyone has stories about wonderful docents, but the mutineer docents pose problems.

Comments on the Gamerman article added detail and context to stories. These are taken from those posted on the original article, letters sent to the Journal, and additional comments posted at MetaFilter:

  • Yup, sounds like Boomers. “How can I make this less about you and more about ME?”
  • My wife and I have long joked that the First Rule of Docentry is “Never admit you don’t know.” If someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer, make something up. The problem extends far beyond art museums.
  • A profusion of know-it-all Baby Boomers who are whiny, entitled, and arrogant; I can scarcely imagine.
  • I was very familiar with the Huntington Museum in Southern California when I visited it again last week. A docent, who I learned later was a lawyer, ruined the day with her aggressive behavior. Docents should remember that patrons are not visiting them but the collections they oversee. They should speak when spoken to.
  • Peter Drucker got it right many years ago about how nonprofits should manage volunteers: Treat them with the respect and regard you’d have of paid employees. That means train them, manage them, schedule them, praise them, and when the situation requires it, reprimand them, and even fire them.
  • We had a bit of this in my last nonprofit job at an animal shelter. The younger (like, under 40) volunteers and people logging community service hours had a much better understanding of what helpful volunteering was: dependable hours of actual work. Cleaning litter boxes, picking up dog waste, cycling dogs outside to the pens so they could run around, etc. Many of the older volunteers (or volunteers with kids) did less critical, but still important, “fun” work like taking individual dogs on walks, bathing dirty animals, or socializing stray kittens. 
  • I am so, so glad to learn that it’s not just my arts organization that has a nightmare problem of entitlement and unmanageability with their (largely Boomer-aged) corps of volunteers. I genuinely thought we just attracted stubborn, intractable doofuses.
  • Volunteers in the aggregate are terrible, and always have been. Maybe there is an uptick in this terrible behavior, maybe not.
  • In Omaha, the museum world is largely staffed by volunteers, many of them Boomers, and they are universally terrible. They are often clueless about actual policies and will just make them up on the spot, they are frequently atrocious at interacting with the public, and on several occasions I have had to contact the organization to complain about the way I was treated by a volunteer.
  • Oh Lord, the docents. A former student of mine was hired on as executive director of a house museum in the Southwest. She is a competent professional with tons of experience and was hired to turn the place around. The docents have thwarted her at every turn. Their tours were full or wrong stories and misinformation that someone made up years ago, and they were damned if they were going to stop telling those stories just because some missy with a graduate degree said they should.
  • I am a Boomer and do lots of volunteer work and I think it’s all true about my age group. It can feel like the 7th grade all over again. 
  • My husband is…the youngest person there (at 41) the rest are 50–90, and it’s a tiny group, and dear lord, the endless bickering over the smallest things, it drives him crazy. I can’t help wondering if sometimes it’s not a feeling of helplessness or disconnection driving it for a lot of these folks, who might be undersocialized and generally not feeling well.

However, many commentators defended their interactions with docents—or their experience as docents themselves:

  • This was an extremely one-sided and negative article. Where is the other side about the thousands of dedicated docents who teach children and adults to love the art museum? I expect more from the WSJ.”
  • The article is skin deep; more research has to be done to speak on that subject matter. I’m sure there are some cases that leave much to be desired, like this article…WSJ is a serious publication and shouldn’t come out with the “yellow paper” material.
  • Extrapolating from a very small number of instances to draw a broad conclusion about the quality of docent services might be a case of “journalism gone wild.”
  • In ten years (as a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum) I haven’t seen many docents “running wild.” I’ve been on free tours with some excellent museum docents. The best one I can recall was an active pilot who occasionally gave tours at the National Air & Space Museum. I find that good docents share a few attributes: passion and expertise for the subject matter and a knack for emotional storytelling. Behind so many of these museum exhibits are historic adventures (affairs! danger! intrigue!) and the best docents can communicate that excitement to the audience.
  • Most docents are great people who work long hours for zero dollars. However, good supervision, clear procedures and decent leadership would prevent most problems.
  • If the museums want robots who follow a script, then they should buy ’em. What the youngsters fail to realize is that a volunteer is attracted to the exhibits because something appeals to them—and the script might not include those things. Unfortunately, any non-approved references will lead to discipline, create hard feelings all around, and lose you a trained docent. So, do the administrators want to be dictators, or will they solicit input from docents on a rotating committee?
  • My guess is the vast majority of docents are helpful, knowledgeable, and love what they do. I’m also guessing that maybe some of them ignore silly museum rules or policies because they’re just volunteering.
  • “Thank god people in my generation never act entitled or ignorant!!”
  • But it bugs me that this is framed as something special about Boomers. No, it’s old people. We’ll be the same when we’re old. Just like we were flaky and liked to party and showed up hung over (taken as a group, at least—I’ve been hung over precisely once in my life because I am boring like that) when we were young.
  • Holy cats. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with docents but I’ve been on the guest end of the equation. I still remember the fantastic docent at the Tenement Museum from my visit 15 years ago, from whom I learned that Elvis was a Shabbos goy when he was a kid. Guess I shouldn’t be so surprised, but damn.
  • With today’s limited budgets, a number of museums couldn’t even stay open without the contributions of volunteers. As many museum directors will attest, it is difficult enough to get competent volunteers without negative articles painting older volunteer docents as incompetent troublemakers deserving of ridicule. We should be encouraging their volunteerism and celebrating those who give up their free time to contribute, not denigrating them.

The sum total of the dialogue sparked by Gamerman’s piece is this: There are issues with inadequate volunteer management in some nonprofits, there are concerns about the roles, training, and functions of museum docents, and there are issues with Baby Boomers’ purported feelings of entitlement and power. Where do you weigh in on the Boomers-as-docents debate: Volunteers gone wild, or volunteers bringing substantial value to the museum experience?—Rick Cohen