By Brian Hendershot and Mallorie Marsh
Interested in volunteering as a docent? Click HERE to apply.
Few would argue against the idea that museums are the legacy of Western colonialism, serving as the products of straight, able-bodied, white, male privilege. This creates all sorts of problems when talking about art and indeed designating things as “art” and “not-art”. And yet, paradoxically, many museums see themselves as public institutions charged with providing equal access for all and a safe space to talk about systemic inequality and inequity.
We’re no different.
If museums are to be a space for candid conversations to happen — or even serve as safe, welcoming environments for all peoples — then they need to get their house in order. At the Crocker, we believe the shift starts with educating our leadership, staff, volunteers, and docents. The latter is particularly important.
Docents are integral to our day-to-day activities. They’re the ones routinely facilitating experiences and connecting guests with the Museum. In many cases, they’re as memorable and influential as any artwork in our galleries. In fact, some members schedule their visits around docent schedules. Right now, our docents don’t look like Sacramento. But they should.
A lack of diversity isn’t problematic for purely representational reasons, although that is important. We practice inquiry-based and dialogic learning. We’re not a sage on stage when talking about art. Rather, we’re guides on the side, helping people learn about art and the world around them. We don’t tell; we ask.
This works best when docents and visitors are able to connect and have shared experiences. But, life in Woodland is not the same as life in Roseville. Frankly speaking, docents raised with privilege can often find themselves lost when trying to connect with someone from a different background. However, it’s not just a matter of socioeconomic status. A person’s job, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and hobbies all play a role in shaping their life experiences and thus their ability to connect with people around them.
In recognition of this problem, we started a diversity and inclusion initiative within our docent corps. We’re taking a three-pronged approach: outreach, recruitment, and continuing education, starting with the latter.
Each year, we offer approximately 12 opportunities for docents to come together and expand their knowledge. Last year — and going forward — one-third of those colloquiums will be devoted to diversity and inclusion. Moreover, each one is led by a community practitioner with extensive experience working with diverse and/or underserved populations.
The docent corps has been extremely receptive to the process, with each person recognizing the value in having and learning from these conversations. However, that’s not enough. Representation is important in and of itself. There are some experiences that cannot be conveyed in a seminar.
We need to know who our docents are, so we can chart a move forward. So, we gathered some basic demographic data on our docents. The results are not surprising. In our 2017 docent class, 33 percent of all docents had an income of $150,000 or higher. Eighty-five percent were white, and 88 percent were female. The vast majority (78 percent) were retired.
We’ve made some progress since then. In the 2019 class, only 16 percent of docents made more than $150,000 a year. Seventy-six percent were white, and 60 percent were retired. Just as importantly: 12 percent are younger than 50. We’ve also increased the number of male docents — an ironic necessity that’s not lost on us.
Docent Corp Diversity Statement: To develop a diverse docent community whose training, touring, and programs are welcoming and inclusive.
We still have a long way to go, but we’re committed to this initiative as an ongoing process. Equity is not achieved overnight and is not a checklist. We’ve also got many exciting things in the works. However, to achieve them, we need your help. More specifically, we need your voice and your time.
First, tell a friend to tell a friend about our Docent Open House on June 27 at 10:30 AM. (Click HERE to watch a recording of the Open House.) There, you can meet other lifelong learners and learn about the program. Attendance at the Open House is not mandatory for prospective docents, but it is helpful. Finally, hold us accountable. Let us know if you experience something inequitable, intolerable, or otherwise not in line with initiative. All of us, even those with the best of intentions, have blind spots.