On Becoming a Museum Docent
June 2012
Jack McDermott, M.D.

Ever thought of becoming a museum docent in retirement?

No? Well, it is different. But not that different. Your career might have prepared you for another role without you even knowing it.

Anyway, it's the most rewarding 'second' retirement career I could have found.

Now please don't get me wrong about retirement. Serving on community boards and consulting with child agencies, and playing lots of golf or tennis, are all fine. I've done it. But after a few years refuting the theory that the more golf you play the better you get, I began searching for something different. Not just something related to my past life, but something that required recreating myself. Perhaps pursuing Erikson's final developmental stage of aging, with it's intimidating dichotomy of ' integrity vs. despair '.

To prepare for this second retirement 'phase', I studied the museum docent role. That meant making the rounds of museum tours in my city, Honolulu, Hawaii. I chose the most historic (and unusual) one, Iolani Palace. The Palace is a restored 1880s gem situated on eleven acres of land in the center of our downtown. It was the residence of last of the Hawaiian monarchy until their overthrow --and Hawaii's ultimate annexation to the United States. As a museum, it's a very 'people friendly' palace compared to those huge European cousins. Its less-than--an-hour long docent led tour follows a simple sequence of its major rooms --after a brief orientation.

My docent training took almost six months, two half days a week. The Palace Educator and staff worked with a group of eight of us, --all the others younger than I. We learned the detailed history of the 100-year Hawaiian monarchy, and the facts about every recovered artifact, furnishing and portrait, even to the Dining Room table set for the King and his dinner guests in elegant European style. Gleaming silver from Paris, English china embossed with the royal coat of arms, sparkling crystal from Bohemia, all set for a seven-course dinner to be served by liveried footmen, with a string orchestra playing softly outside.

Of course, that's where the imagination comes in. What I'm getting at, is that knowing the historical details and data about the artifacts isn't enough. It is just the background you need to learn in becoming a docent, background for constructing a compelling story. Yes, the real challenge is developing a coherent story for your tour. In my case, that story that began to morph from my old play therapy days as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Yes, the artifacts make for an atmosphere of authenticity ---in a palace restored to its 19th century grandeur. But in leading a tour room by room, you can't just describe the furnishings. It would bore some of them to death. After all, it's not as much an art museum as a living history of a people. You need to get your small audience of a dozen or so to step back in time and imagine life as it was then in every room. First The Grand Hall, then the Parlor and Dining Rooms, next the Royal living Quarters, the upstairs Library and Music Room, and finally, the Throne Room downstairs.

The trick, of course, is to encourage the group's own active involvement through their own observations and questions, sometimes even posing questions yourself to prime the pump. And you're not just trying to satisfy a group of adults with different backgrounds from all over the world. You're trying to engage their kids, too, if they're along. (Yes, especially the kids, because most of them would rather be at the beach.)

You can do that in several ways. For example, by telling them how the Music Room was a place where the three royals could let down their hair, playing and singing to and with each other. And how it was a place where this gifted threesome actually created some of today's familiar Hawaiian music --with their own slack key guitars and ukuleles.

The affective experience is a different one room by room. In the Dining Room, where the King loved to entertain guests in the European style, you might try to get them to imagine themselves at a place card seating, absorbed in conversation about the events of the day. Yes, absorbed through all seven courses, each accompanied by a fine French wine. "What's going on in America?" asks the King. "Have you read the new book by my good friend Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island?" If you're on the right track, one youngster might answer aloud: "No King", but I've seen 'Pirates of the Caribbean' with Johnny Depp. It's about buried treasure, too!" Time for dessert, already? Make your choice: Iolani Pudding or ice cream with strawberries, the Kings favorite. It comes with the story of how he developed his steam-generated icemaker.

Each docent creates a different tour using the same source material. Yes, it's based on facts, but it must go beyond them to weave a coherent, and hopefully interesting, story together. Of course that story has to pass muster for accuracy; 'continuing certification' is for docents, too.

Anyway, what I conclude about retirement isn't really new. As you already know, recreating yourself in a new role isn't so hard if there's a transition from ones life work as child and adolescent psychiatrist. Here's an example of how it comes out for me: winding up in the Throne Room, the tour's final segment, I don't talk about crowned monarchs ruling from the thrones at the far end of the room. Instead I ask the group to try to imagine themselves at a Children's Costume Ball given by the Queen (from data taken from newspaper archives). Try to imagine this great room full of youngsters of all ages on some late afternoon or evening in 1891. Led by the Royal Dance Teacher, imagine them now as couples on the dance floor, whirling around the room to the strains of a Viennese waltz, played by the Royal Hawaiian Band. Yes, to try to recreate in their own minds something that really happened?to imagine little Prince Charming right here, dancing with Little Red Riding Hood. To imagine the boy dressed as an Italian Fruit Vendor waltzing the Snow Queen. And then, if they're still with you, an image of something that actually couldn't have happened. An image of the late young Prince Albert, the hope of the future for the Hawaiian nation, until tragically struck dead from meningitis in early childhood. There he is now, right out there dancing with the Fairy Princess. Wearing his favorite red Fireman blouse (he actually had been an honorary member of Honolulu Firehouse Number Four), he is confiding to his partner that he's resolved his conflict about being either a Fireman or King. He can be both!

Corny? Maybe. But once or twice I've spotted a tear in the eye of one of my group, and it all seems worthwhile!