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Docents Gone Wild

Wall Street Journal—Ellen Gamerman

Kat Braz, a graphic designer from West Lafayette, Ind., was visiting the Iolani Palace in Honolulu this past December when she said a guide scolded her for straying from the group. The docent, an older man in a Hawaiian shirt, insinuated that certain people on the tour were fat, she said, and mocked them for not knowing obscure historical trivia. Ms. Braz, 35, couldn’t wait for the experience to end. “I’ve never had anybody be so rude before,” she said.

More arts-loving baby boomers—educated, experienced and recently retired—are hustling to become museum tour guides. The number of volunteers ages 65 and older is projected to climb nearly 23% to 13 million in 2020 from 10.6 million today, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency focused on volunteering.

Yet while institutions say they welcome this new wave of graying volunteers, behind closed doors some museum staffers are growing impatient with docents flouting their supervisors, misstating facts, touching the art, and other infractions. “There’s been an uptick in ‘docents gone wild’ moments,” said Maggie Guzowski, who runs the arts-employee blog “When You Work at a Museum.”

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At the recent annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums in Atlanta, headaches involving docents and other volunteers occupied an entire session. In a forum titled “Waking Up From Volunteer Nightmares,” professionals discussed a museum tour guide whose graphic commentary about World War II terrified small children. Another spoke about husband-and-wife volunteers who spent their shifts bickering. Someone else described a clique of volunteers who were so bossy they even lectured the museum director.

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With a steady march of older Americans entering the volunteer force—about 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day and will keep doing so for the next 14 years—museums are finding themselves in the uncomfortable role of caregiver. At the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, one docent collapsed just before a tour last year. “It was a wake-up call,” said Jennifer Reid, the museum’s group tour and volunteer coordinator, who now makes sure she has emergency contacts and a clear protocol in the event of a problem.

Volunteer tour guides will be showing and telling at many big museum shows this summer. A look at five exhibitions featuring everything from Impressionist paintings to Hawaiian feathered pieces.

Working as a tour guide is no trivial matter. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York demands a three-year commitment from its volunteer tour guides. The Museum of Modern Art in New York stations its volunteers around the museum to answer questions and provide information but doesn’t ask them to give tours—only paid professionals are allowed in that role. New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art uses docents for public tours, but it asks paid experts to guide student groups.

At the Whitney, only about 30 docent candidates are picked from more than 100 applications, with about 10 dropping off before the end of training. Contenders embark on at least a year of study, examining art history and the finer points of public speaking, including gesturing and eye contact.

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Managing a generation of volunteers who grew up as rebels isn’t always easy. At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, some volunteers revolted last year after the museum tried to overhaul its docent program. In an effort to reach a broader audience and attract some younger tour guides, the museum told its docents there would be a new system, one that included direct outreach to college-aged students interested in arts-related careers. The Hirshhorn initiated a structured schedule of work shifts, additional training and periodic performance evaluations, requirements that certain docents had challenged in the past, said museum spokeswoman Kelly Carnes. “There was this culture of resistance,” she said. “They really felt entitled after spending enough time here not to make any changes from the way they had previously done things.”

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Institutions tread carefully around a volunteer workforce often dominated by the elderly, wary of whisperings about ageism. In most cases, volunteers aren’t protected as employees under federal antidiscrimination statutes, said Monique Chase, an employment lawyer at the New York firm Outten & Golden. There are potential exceptions for seniors who can prove that they received significant job-related benefits and worked in the capacity of paid employees. While federal standards of what constitutes employment are strict, some state and local laws may offer greater leeway in determining when volunteers qualify as such staff.

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Evidence suggests only a minority of museum visitors enjoy guided tours. A 2010 study of 40,000 visitors to 100 American museums found 31% of respondents said they enjoyed taking guided tours, compared with 64% who preferred visiting on their own with supporting materials, said Susie Wilkening, a senior consultant at Reach Advisors Museums R+D, which conducted the research. “It’s a feeling of a loss of control when you’re with a guided tour,” she said. “We hear things about ‘canned monologues’ and not even the possibility of a question being asked.”

Volunteers who try to spice up tours by improvising may do so at their peril. A couple of years ago, Barbara Curry was touring the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon in Charleston, S.C., when her colonial docent went off script. “We got to one stop and he said, ‘Well, I’m going to tell you this and I just made it up, but it could be true,’” said Ms. Curry, a 61-year-old retired energy company executive from Leawood, Kan. The guide told a story about what prisoners might have done with insects while locked in the building’s basement centuries ago. “The whole thing was quite, ‘Ugh, we just paid for that?’”

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