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Creating 'aha moments': MMAM seeks docents for educational tours

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So you want to be a docent at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

Either that, or you’re wondering what the word even means.

“Tour guide is kind of the word I’ve been using,” said Heather Casper, curator of education at the museum.

Regardless of the title, the museum is looking to recruit a new group of docents, who serve as tour facilitators for hundreds of adults and the more than 2,500 schoolchildren who visit the museum each year.

Casper said for many of the students, given their distance from Twin Cities museums and the cost of travel, the MMAM may be their only art-museum visit.

So docents have the honor — and responsibility — of piquing the children’s curiosity and excitement about art.

“We literally have one hour to turn a kid on to a museum,” she said. “Our goal is really to make it fun and to make museums matter.”

Though the name might sound stuffy and boring, docents aren’t meant to be walking art history encyclopedias, Casper said.

Art lovers are welcome, of course, and the museum is home to its fair share of pieces by famous masters. But to Casper, the power of the art museum is not in the facts of its paintings, but in the connections and lightbulb moments they inspire.

“The docents kind of have to be that ambassador,” she said.

At the museum on Friday, docent Judy Bautch led a group of students from Winona Senior High School through the museum to its most widely recognized painting.

“Come so you can see the painting behind me,” she said, beckoning the group closer. “Take a look at that and tell me what you see.”

“It looks like ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware,’” said one student.

Bautch confirmed the answer, then proceeded to tell the group about the painting, using her red laser pointer to call their attention to different aspects of the painting.

Bautch, a retired nursing professor, said she became a docent because she wanted to learn about art, but her favorite part of the job is seeing how art affects people.

“It’s fun having people do their aha moments,” she said. “They’ll ask, ‘Is this the real thing?’”

Docents go through 15 training classes over eight weeks, which focus on strategies for leading educational tours. A docent could have a group of five-year-olds one day and a group of adults with special needs the next.

After training is finished, they’re required to attend a continuing education class once a month and give at least six tours a year to maintain active status. Classes and tours occur during the day on weekdays, so the majority of docents are retirees.

It’s a commitment, Casper admitted, but one that makes for a very interesting volunteer experience.

“The more you put in, the more you get back. That’s what kind of a gig this is,” she said.

People come to the role from all sorts of careers, for all sorts of reasons, and no prior art knowledge is required.

Dave Marshall said he became a docent two years ago because his wife, also a docent, loved the job so much.

Marshall, a retired linguistics professor, said he enjoys talking with people about art, and said the role has exposed him to new perspectives, too.

“If you try it, you’re going to like it,” he said. “It becomes a great joy — you begin to find things you never did appreciate before.”

“We literally have one hour to turn a kid on to a museum. Our goal is really to make it fun and to make museums matter.” Heather Casper, MMAM

“We literally have one hour to turn a kid on to a museum. Our goal is really to make it fun and to make museums matter.”

Heather Casper, MMAM

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