Meeting the Docent Challenge
Elizabeth Darr, a docent at both the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum, admits she only took one course in art history in college — and it was only the second half of a yearlong survey course. Although her university studies may have been limited, she has since completed a rigorous training course to become a docent.
Darr moved to Kansas City in 1997 to work as an ob-gyn; after five years, she found another practice in central Massachusetts. When she was ready to retire, she realized that she wanted to return to the Midwest.
While she craved structure in her day-to-day schedule, it was Darr’s love of learning that convinced her to become a museum docent. She began the Nelson’s two-year training course in 2009.
The path to docent-hood is a challenging one, with a full day each week of lectures, discussions and studying the museum’s collections. Although one is not required to write papers, there is a good bit of studying as well as periodic exams.
Students of all ages, as well as adults, take docent tours. Children pose a special challenge when it comes to nudity in the collection. Darr recalled preparing for a sculpture park tour for third-graders, which included Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
“Rodin likes to make his male genitalia extra-large and ‘The Thinker’s’ are no exception,” she said. “I spent quite a while deciding how to approach the sculpture with my group of 8-year-olds, so that we didn’t dwell in full-frontal territory.”
But when the tour occurred, Darr realized there was something she hadn’t prepared for: “After a good discussion about what (“The Thinker”) might be thinking about, we took off for our next stop. Glancing behind me I noticed several of the girls giggling hysterically at his bare butt, a vantage point which I had not considered.”
The Junior League founded the Nelson’s docent program in 1934, making it one of the oldest all-volunteer docent programs in the country. Currently there are 110 docents in the program, giving approximately 32 tours a week. Tours, which can be booked through the museum’s website, www.nelson-atkins.org, are quite diverse. Some focus on collections such as African art or photography; others address special exhibitions. Additionally, there are tactile tours and tours that focus on a theme, like medicine, religion or love.
Darr particularly enjoys guiding people through the Chinese art collection. While learning about it in the training course, she made a point of studying Chinese history and subsequently organized a lecture on the travels of Marco Polo for her fellow docents. A trip to China in 2014 opened her eyes to connections with the Nelson’s collection but also gave her the opportunity to experience the continuing influences of Daoist and Confucian traditions firsthand.
To remain in good standing, a docent must give 24 tours a year.
The information docents present on their tours is scripted with specific talking points and four targeted stops, lasting one hour. But docents also have the option to create new tours based on requests from the public or their own inspiration. Darr recently had a group of foreign exchange students, mostly from Japan. She decided to highlight the American painting collection, giving a lesson in United States history as she discussed the works of art.
Tours have evolved in the last few years to focus on fewer items, allowing time to explore them in greater detail. One goal is to get tour-goers as engaged as possible —activities such as drawing a work of art or writing about it encourage viewers to become more involved.
Darr has also been a docent at the Kemper Museum of Art for the last five years. She is fascinated by the wide range of materials used by contemporary artists — from glass to Tyvek, ceramics and aluminum. With the Kemper’s three to four major exhibitions a year, Darr savors the challenge of keeping up with new artists and techniques.
At the end of our conversation Darr was off to review a tour that she has not given in a year, walking through selected galleries and checking her notes. Her dedication and enthusiasm are not limited to her hours at the museum, as she often meets up with her fellow docents for study groups, discussions of art books or films. It is no wonder that she refers to the museum and her colleagues as family.