In February of this year I started my journey as a docent at the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts. My tenure this year will soon end as the house readies to close at the end of October.
Here are some random thoughts on my observations as a first time docent.
1) There is no better way to get to know an historic house (short of living in it) than by visiting it every week. I suspected this would be the case when I signed up and I was proved right. There is no way you can get to know a house from a one-time visit. Being a docent allows you to really get to know the nuances of an old house.
2) You will see something new every week. Without fail on every tour that I gave someone asked me a question about something I had never noticed before. There is no better way to try to see everything. It is also interesting to discover and interpret objects and houses through the eyes of visitors. Every visitor has a different bent on what they are interested in seeing.
3) It is difficult to learn and internalize someone else’s research. This may be the case because I’m an historical researcher myself. I find it so much easier to talk about my own research than someone else’s but that’s exactly what you need to do to prepare for giving house tours. The thing that worked best for me was following along on tours given by the curator or other docents. I could copy their performances quicker from hearing and watching than from reading.
4) It is really fun to work with a group of people who all love the same thing you do. Being a house historian can often be a solitary task. Being a docent for a house museum allows you to get to know the board, the staff and the other docents, not to mention the visitors and the descendants who come for the annual reunion.
5) Your faith in mankind’s multi-generational interest in preservation will be restored. I worked at the Fairbanks House with docents from age 17 to 70+. I worked with high school students, college students, grad students, retirees. They all had a passion for this old timber frame house. They all had a curiosity and drive to know as much about history as possible. Each one of them brought their own special expertise. It was an incredible learning and sharing environment.
6) You become a cheerleader. I know I did. I was so impressed with the energy, determination and professionalism of curator Meaghan Siekman. She is an inspiration and every day with her brought a new adventure. It’s exciting to watch what she brings to the world of public history. I know I’ll be a big fan for a long time to come.
If you find that you want to get involved with historic houses more than just the research you are doing on your own, I would highly recommend becoming a docent. Join the team at the Fairbanks House or find another house museum close to your own area. I think you will find it a rich and rewarding experience.