5Ws+1H: What It's About: Museum volunteers, docents in similar positions

The Thompson House has used docents and volunteers in the past to help preserve history and inform patrons.

While docents and volunteers are similar in function, a docent can be seen as a variant of the latter.

Patsy Clifford, board member and publicity chairman for the Thompson House, said the term “docent” is basically an older word for a guide.

“You’ll hear that term more in museums. It’s a person who acts as a guide, and usually, they're a volunteer,” said Clifford.

While a docent can be considered a volunteer, Clifford said some can get paid for the position, depending on the museum or organization they work for.

A volunteer’s tasks can incorporate anything from helping decorate to maintaining a site’s grounds, while a docent mainly works with academics by giving tours to patrons and answering questions.

Clifford said having docents at historical preservation sites is important, as they help immerse patrons and keep them interested in historical and cultural information provided by museums.

“If you want people to be interested in the house and historical preservation, you have to know what it is about,” said Clifford.

While docents can help guide individual people or groups on tours of a museum, they can also help inform school groups about historical and cultural preservation. Clifford said some of the historical information shared with students and other patrons can help answer questions about certain time periods, such as what people's daily interactions were, what was worn, and what was eaten.

Clifford said although the Thompson House has actively been searching for docents, finding someone to fill the positions can be hard sometimes. She said it is easier to get volunteers in general to help with events, such as History Day or for Victorian Christmas, than filling the docent position, because of the level of difficulty associated with it.

“With this you have to remember what you’re saying, and you have to know how to say it to people,” said Clifford. “If you’re shy, you may not want to be a docent.”

To become a docent at museums or historical locations, such as the Thompson House, individuals have to have training and learn to memorize certain subjects and facts. Clifford said among the qualities a docent needs are to be interested in historical preservation, have a clear voice, and a want for the position.

“[For regular volunteers] they just have to have a desire to help with historical preservation and to help out their community,” said Clifford.

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