Docenting at a Non-Art Museum

Or, What it's Like to Have One of the Longest Titles Ever: Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum (NASM)

Being a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world, is an honor no matter what role you play. For me, best of all is being a NASM Docent. As a child a family vacation to Washington DC gave me my first exposure to the Smithsonian and the Air and Space Museum. From that time on I knew aviation and the Smithsonian would both be in my life. My military and civilian career path never led to a job with the Smithsonian. However, I did serve in the US Air Force and got my private pilot's license. Then, as soon as I became eligible to retire, I purposely schedule my retirement date for a Friday and started volunteering at the Smithsonian that following Monday.

The Smithsonian sets high standards for accuracy in everything we present to the public. Docent training emphasizes the importance of presenting facts, not personal speculation. If we don't know the answer to a question the appropriate response is, "I don't know, but I'll find out." We have a number of different types of tours focused on different themes that are available to school groups and the public. Each type of tour has a Tour Guide that gives a basic outline of key ideas to cover and artifacts that support that theme. While these outlines offer a good foundation for a tour they are not intended to be canned scripts that must be memorized and followed exactly. At NASM docents are encouraged to adapt our tours to take advantage of our own personal areas of expertise to make tours more stimulating and memorable to visitors.

As a NASM docent I enjoy being given the freedom to make my tours flow more like a conversation among friends rather than as a lecture. I am amazed at the different people I meet on my tours. I have had the privilege of meeting a wide range of aviation pioneers and heroes - astronauts, aviation world record holders, veterans from past wars (not only from the US, but also from many other countries including former adversaries). I learn as much from them as they learn from me! I also enjoy meeting visitors who have little knowledge about aviation, or space, and find great satisfaction if something I say sparks their interest. It is especially rewarding when a child, or young person, gets excited about what they are seeing and hearing. I always hope that perhaps something in this tour will set them on a path to a STEAM career in the aerospace industry. At the end of school tours I encourage the students to study hard and perhaps one day one of them will be the first person to walk on Mars.

Of course things are not always strictly serious. I'll finish with my favorite tour story. At the beginning of a tour I asked the group if they knew who invented the first successful airplane. The group included two brothers who were about eight and ten years old. The younger brother obviously though he knew and was trying to remember the names. He said he knew it was "two brothers." Then his brother, trying to be helpful (or show he knew more than his little brother?), chimed in that it was "Warner Brothers." Well - "That's Entertainment."

Steve Reynolds, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Docent Volunteer

 

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