We need you!
One of the many reasons I love being a member of the education office at the Virginia Historical Society is that I get to work with a wonderful group of people who help me teach Virginia history to thousands of children every year. They are the VHS docents. During the 2009–10 school year, we saw 12,313 students at the museum! This would not have been possible without the help of our docents. Peter Rippe, a longtime member of the docent program, has written a short blog about what it is like to be a docent at the society. Enjoy!
~Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis, Outreach Educator
Do you love Virginia history? Have you ever been interested in teaching young students? Are you retired or do have some extra time to do some important volunteer work? If you answer “yes” to these questions, then, perhaps, you’d be interested in becoming a docent at the Virginia Historical Society.
Some eight years ago, I gave a positive answer to those questions and joined VHS’s Docent Program. For those of you who may not be familiar with the word docent, it means, especially in museums, “a walking lecturer/teacher.” I know the word well because for some thirty-eight years as a museum director I taught docents how to verbally interpret museum collections and exhibitions to museum visitors. In 1960, when I began training for my career, I was one in a class of five new Winterthur Fellows who, even before we could begin our rigorous two-year graduate course, had to take a docent training program. We were required to become working docents at the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum. The rationale was that as future museum professionals, it was necessary for us to be able to convey ideas about material culture (museum collections) to non-museum, everyday people. We were instructed in the art of telling stories about historical or artistic objects—documents and concepts that would illuminate, teach, and, entertain. In a nut shell, these three criteria are still the primary intent of any good docent tour.
After my retirement from the world of museums in 2000, the VHS’s Docent Program offered me a chance to continue to work with people, especially young people, in an attempt to nurture their interest in history, while reinforcing their classroom learning of what, in Virginia, are called the SOLs (Standards of Learning). The society’s Story of Virginia exhibition is designed to complement the student’s (usually 4th and 5th graders) textbook information relative to all aspects of Virginia history. Using historical objects, maps, documents, and dioramas within the confines of what, for most students, is a unique learning experience, a VHS docent introduces student tour groups to lots of “neat stuff,” to quote from VHS’s current advertising banners. Through a question and answer format with lots of story content, a docent moves his/her group through this special Virginia-focused exhibition, potentially turning the student’s preconceived and often bland concept of history into an exciting and memorable museum experience.
The docents at the Virginia Historical Society are men and women, mostly retired, who come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. What they have in common, however, is a genuine passion for sharing their time and their stories, within the context of an award-winning exhibition, with student tour groups. Being a VHS docent is like being an unpaid member of the society’s staff. At regular docent meetings, we share our experiences as we learn more about the society’s collections from fulltime members of the professional staff. Nobody is sent out on the floor before they have the information they need and have had the opportunity to follow the tours of a number of experienced docents. Still, there is a genuine thrill of accomplishment, much like starting a new job, when a new docent “goes out” for their first tour leading their own group.
We invite you, if you have the time and the inclination, to join our docent program and feel the thrill. Please telephone either Caroline Legros at (804) 342-9652 or Chris Van Tassell at (804) 340-2270, in the society’s programs division. You may also visit our new docent page at http://www.vahistorical.org/education/docentprogram.htm.
We need you . . . and, perhaps, you need us.
A longtime member of the VHS Docent Program, Peter Rippe volunteers at a number of institutions across the commonwealth, and currently serves as President of the Goochland County Historical Society. Before his retirement in 2000, Peter served as the Director of both the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of the Confederacy, was a member of the Board of Directors for the American Association of Museums and was a Senior Accreditor for the AAM. Peter is also the author of the book P. Buckley Moss: Painting the Joy of the Soul. He and his wife Maria life in Richmond.