Docents Gone Wild
June 26, 2015 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Funny...I've actually thought about being a docent as I drift toward my dotage. I swear, I'll keep my hands off the art! Honest!
posted by Thorzdad at 7:38 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

"They really felt entitled after spending enough time here not to make any changes from the way they had previously done things."

I am shocked, shocked to see that there's gambling going on here Boomers acting intractable and entitled.
posted by ShawnStruck at 7:41 AM on June 26, 2015 [43 favorites]

Maybe if I volunteer at a museum, I can finally get some kind of medical care if I collapse. Now there's a thought.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:46 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Law & Order
Docent Unit

posted by boo_radley at 7:48 AM on June 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'm certainly looking forward to when my generation is old and some of us are stubborn, grumpy or in the very early grip of dementia.

"Those Gen-X-ers are so entitled - they're spoiled by receiving their government ration of tube food! We won't get tube food when we retire! We should take their tube food away!!!"

"Those Gen-X-ers ruined everything for all of us, and now they have the nerve to be old, stubborn and frail!! Thank god our generation won't be like theirs!!!"

"I wish we didn't have to pay for their tube food out of our taxes...except for the tube food received by my parents, of course"

"Thank god people in my generation never act entitled or ignorant!!"

I think that everyone who's not a Boomer had better look out - we're all going to be old someday, and these neverending stories of human frailty that are pinned on bullshit generational characteristics are going to come back to bite us all in the ass.

Which is not to say that museums shouldn't just bounce those docents, of course.
posted by Frowner at 7:52 AM on June 26, 2015 [35 favorites]

Myself and a couple of colleagues just did a full-day retreat at our museum to discuss these very issues and initiate a major overhaul of the docent and volunteer programs. We love our docents, but many of them have been docents here for so long (15-20 years!) that they don't deal well with even minor changes anymore. We've pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that we are probably going to lose some in the next round of changes. But if they can't manage one small change like recording their hours ("We've never done it before! Why should we start now?" "Is this a popularity contest?" "Why the bureaucracy?") they probably couldn't handle critique on the actual flow/style/content of their tours.
posted by Mouse Army at 7:55 AM on June 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

Docent programs seem like a lot to ask of unpaid volunteers who, by nature of the program, pretty much have to be retired. If you have someone give up a couple days of their week, unpaid, then you're damn right they're going to be a little territorial and defensive.

I can see this going two ways: Start a paid docent program so you can set some reasonable expectations and find enthusiastic talent, or set it up as a two year unpaid internship for college art majors who don't know any better. The former would be preferable, obviously, but I'm guessing the latter is the route these positions will take.
posted by Think_Long at 8:06 AM on June 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

We had a bit of this in my last nonprofit job at an animal shelter. The younger (like, under 40) volunteers and people logging community service hours had a much better understanding of what helpful volunteering was: dependable hours of actual work. Cleaning litterboxes, picking up dog waste, cycling dogs outside to the pens so they could run around, etc. Many of the older volunteers (or volunteers with kids) did less critical, but still important, "fun" work like taking individual dogs on walks, bathing dirty animals, or socializing stray kittens.

But we definitely had obstinate older volunteers who were there chat with the public, challenge entry-level staff about board-level shelter policy, and routinely give out wrong information about animal histories and adoption criteria. They would get offended if asked to keep a log of their work or cover booths at events. They were generally just in the way and required an insane amount of babysitting from a young, high-turnover staff already trying to keep 60-100+ animals alive.

It's also tricky to fire entitled volunteers because they'll take their firing very personally and create a PR shitshow ("why should we be funding this organization when they're turning away willing help??" and the like). I definitely realize you can't expect the world of unpaid labor, but some volunteers contributed a net negative to the environment and expected gratitude for it. It was very frustrating.
posted by almostmanda at 8:10 AM on June 26, 2015 [20 favorites]

Maybe if we actually funded museums we could pay the docents to do the professional job the museums really need.
posted by immlass at 8:18 AM on June 26, 2015 [23 favorites]

I don't think it is a boomer thing as much as it is a volunteer thing. I very much hope to never again have to manage volunteers as long as I live. Young or old, it comes with so much hand holding and entitlement that I learned I am not the right personality for that job.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:18 AM on June 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

Yeah, I volunteered in an animal shelter and they were pretty explicit about consistent hours and following the exact rules, and they had to get rid of some volunteers. (Like the one who told people not to adopt torties. Argh.)

Reminds me of this story on Ask A Manager (update).
posted by jeather at 8:24 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am so, so glad to learn that it's not just my arts organization that has a nightmare problem of entitlement and unmanageability with their (largely Boomer-aged) corps of volunteers. I genuinely thought we just attracted stubborn, intractable doofuses.
posted by penduluum at 8:29 AM on June 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I've been in plenty of organizations where the trouble comes from the flaky kids who just want to party and decide at the last minute not to show up, come in hungover, etc etc. In my current situation, one of the two most reliable people is in her early sixties and the other is really young.

Managing volunteers is really difficult. Being a volunteer also requires some self-discipline - I know from experience that it's easy to fall into the "well, I'm working for free, so I shouldn't have to work really hard or else they should be super nice to me since I'm not getting paid". That's one reason that I've stepped back my volunteer commitments - I'd rather do two things well than four or five lazily.

I wonder, though - it's not as though "elderly people can be more stubborn and change-resistant than younger people" is some kind of giant new revelation. We have this idea that age doesn't change anything - this weird capitalist idea that being seventy is just like being thirty except with wrinkles. But anyone who's seen a parent age knows that aging changes things, even when someone who is strong, healthy and fully mentally present. (I mean, my dad is apparently made out of iron - knock on wood! - but even he has slowed down a bit in his late sixties, has more medical issues and has to be careful when he's hefting giant containers of heavy stuff.) People get tired more easily, medical issues are way more serious, for some people it's more difficult to learn new processes - all that stuff is real, and it's part of getting old, so naturally it's going to impact organizations that have a lot of retired people in them. If you want to run your organization with a substantial number of older volunteers, then yes, you have to deal with the issues that disproportionately afflict the elderly.

But it bugs me that this is framed as something special about Boomers. No, it's old people. We'll be the same when we're old. Just like we were flaky and liked to party and showed up hungover (taken as a group, at least - I've been hungover precisely once in my life because I am boring like that) when we were young.
posted by Frowner at 8:32 AM on June 26, 2015 [23 favorites]

And there's the fact that we are an ageist society. Gee, I wonder why someone might be kind of demanding and needy when they receive nothing but social messages that they're a waste of space, no longer interesting or attractive and selfishly using up government resources on their Social Security.
posted by Frowner at 8:34 AM on June 26, 2015 [15 favorites]

But I want both the unpaid labor of a non-profit *AND* the capitalist notion that employees should maintain quotas and can be fired for the slightest infraction!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:46 AM on June 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

The article was thin on actual verified instances of these boomers going wild, relying on "oh those old people" stories by someone giving a talk on handling volunteers.

Volunteers in the aggregate are terrible, and always have been. Maybe there is an uptick if this terrible behaviour, maybe not. But assuming that boomers are going to run wild over our freedoms because... there's more of them is hilariously like 1960s fear of teenagers.

Boomers didn't break the Western world any more than it needed to then, and they probably aren't going to now.

Not to mention that post hoc categories like gen x, boomer, etc are pretty much shit ways of talking about social problems.

So, before we shit all over old people again, let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:47 AM on June 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

In Omaha, the museum world is largely staffed by volunteers, many of them boomers, and they are universally terrible. They are often clueless about actual policies and will just make them up on the spot, they are frequently atrocious at interacting with the public, and on several occasions I have had to contact the organization to complain about the way I was treated by a volunteer.

I understand the free labor is irresistible. I also work at a non-profit that includes a museum. But, frankly, these volunteers are often the public face of the organization, and they are terrible at it.
posted by maxsparber at 8:50 AM on June 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well, that explains this Bizarro cartoon.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 8:52 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I've been in plenty of organizations where the trouble comes from the flaky kids who just want to party and decide at the last minute not to show up, come in hungover, etc etc.

Huh, my volunteer job has a lot of college students at it and they usually cite "OMG I HAVE A MIDTERM" as their reason for flaking. To be fair, the job doesn't require morning shifts so that probably bypasses the hangover crowd.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:59 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Get off my earthwork.
posted by y2karl at 9:03 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

about 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day and will keep doing so for the next 14 years

I'd be intransigent too if I turned 65 every day for 5000+ days.
posted by bgrebs at 9:08 AM on June 26, 2015 [23 favorites]

True story.

I'm in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and they have a rule -- you can't wear backpacks on your back. If you have a backpack, you must hold it in your hands.

In front of me, a retirement-aged volunteer gently reminds a young woman of the rule.

"But I don't understand," she says.
"It's to protect the art." he says, "If you're wearing the backpack and turn, you may accidentally strike the art with the backpack, because you can't see behind you."
"But I still don't understand why you're making me hold my backpack," she says.

The volunteer looks at her, dumbstruck. Looks at me. Looks back at her.

"Goddamn, woman, these are priceless works of art."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:19 AM on June 26, 2015 [42 favorites]

the tours, which cost $21.75 per adult

posted by yoink at 9:20 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

But it bugs me that this is framed as something special about Boomers. No, it's old people. We'll be the same when we're old. Just like we were flaky and liked to party and showed up hungover (taken as a group, at least - I've been hungover precisely once in my life because I am boring like that) when we were young.

The generational narrative about Boomers is that they were the first people to really experience "teenager" as a distinct identity, pop culture's youth obsession, and all that. "Don't trust anyone under 30". I think US society was probably less ageist in terms of culture before the huge changes in the 60s. This irony underpins most of the Baby-Boom-aging trend stories I've read, and it's kind of unique to this one generation.

I think this phenomenon is part of why people get so gleeful and mean about it. That, and almost everybody knows and resents an aging narcissist, for whom no amount of respect, attention, and support will ever be enough -- which is probably who we imagine when we think about these docents.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:23 AM on June 26, 2015 [10 favorites]

Oh Lord, the docents. A former student of mine was hired on as executive director of a house museum in the southwest. She is a competent professional with tons of experience and was hired to turn the place around. The docents have thwarted her at every turn. Their tours were full or wrong stories and misinformation that someone made up years ago, and they were damned if they were going to stop telling those stories just because some missy with a graduate degree said they should. Their monthly living history day, which consists of almost Halloween getups and the volunteers talking "old timey," was similarly sacrosanct. The furniture in the house is all wrong? Why honey, my mother donated that buffet to the museum 30 years ago and she would be rolling in her grave is you lay a finger on it! Oh and the docents take turns serving on the board and make up about half of that body, so they are disregarded at one's peril.

My friend has slowly gained control of the situation, but it took years to gain the power an authority she should have enjoyed on Day 1, and she almost got fired a couple of times along the way.

Be careful around the docents, they will cut you.
posted by LarryC at 9:54 AM on June 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

I once worked at a formal gala for my arts organization. It was our major fundraising event of the year, and there was the added coup that Ms. Y would attend. We had been trying to get her on our "junior level board" for years. She herself was not going to give us giant amounts of money, but if she agreed, she could use her societal connections to bring in very large donors and advocates. We were tickled pink.

I was working the entrance. I was 24; I was full time paid staff. Sitting at a folding table, handing out tickets, were the volunteer ladies--three of them, in their seventies and eighties.

I had never seen the volunteer ladies before. We used paid ushers at our venue; we did very little phone banking; there was sometimes talk of bringing them in to stuff envelopes for mailings, but this job usually fell to me. From what I had heard, the volunteer ladies had a monthly coffee hour at their apartments.

Ms. Y arrived. She was a striking woman in her forties or fifties, and she wore a clinging gown of dark gold satin. It fit her perfectly. The other attendees ranged from tuxedos and plain dark gowns to the beaded-tunic and pants combination one sees as "comfort gala wear". She stood out without looking out of place.

Ms. Y picked up her tickets, exchanged pleasantries with us, and stationed herself about seven or eight feet away from us, where she embarked on vivacious conversation, champagne glass in hand, with the other attendees. We had an unobstructed view, and I beamed quietly at the sight.

"You know, not everyone can wear satin," said one of the volunteers, rather loudly.

"No," said another.

"No, it shows everything," the third responded in a clarion voice.

"You have to have just a perfect figure to wear it."

"Ladies," I hissed in alarm.

"You have to wear special underwear with it."

"Yes, or else no--"

"Ladies," I said, unsure how I, a 24 year old, could respectfully tell 80 year olds they were being bitches. "Ladies, the sound really carries over here."

"What?" called one of them.

"Ladies, people can hear our conversations."

"What's the problem?! We were just talking! We're just talking!"

By this time I noticed the side-eyed look from Ms. Y and I fled the table to get our assistant director to escort her away from the entrance.

I never did find out if Ms. Y joined the junior board.
posted by Hypatia at 9:58 AM on June 26, 2015 [15 favorites]

So, anonymous account because I do not want this to come back to me because I have major job-related paranoia.

I work in a museum (two museums actually) that both have active docent programs. One skews much younger because the museum is associated with a University. The other skews much older.

Most people in the latter museum joke about how the docents are often the wives of some very prominent donors. That's what it takes to go through a two-year unpaid program. Who else could afford to do that? Even in the other museum, I started looking up the last names of many of the students involved, and sure enough, they are the sons and daughters of major players within our local arts community. They will often, after graduating, obtain jobs within the University that their parents and grandparents have given money to.

But back to the other museum: recently, the docents made dozens upon dozens of baked goods for every employee of the museum. How sweet, I thought. I haven't been there very long, but that seemed like such a nice gesture and it was accompanied by a card thanking our department (and presumably every other department) for its hard work and dedication to the museum. A thank you card was passed around within our department. I tried to write a very thoughtful response in return.

Then, I hear from one of my supervisors, that we absolutely need to get everyone to sign this card or we'll hear about it later. Apparently, last year the docents did the same thing (baked goods for every department) and then raised hell when they weren't thanked properly for their efforts. So this year, along with the baked goods, they sent out a message to every department saying that they expected a proper Thank You for their efforts this time.

My only other experience with these docents was in a mandated Diversity Training session. Who do you think steamrolled the entire experience? Despite the docent program being 100% white and mostly female (with the exception of one man that I know of), and not being an accurate representation of the racial and economic makeup of museum employees as a whole, they took it upon themselves to educate all the rest of us about Race and Gender and Hardships and When I Refer To A Black Person As Being Articulate, I Mean It As A COMPLIMENT.

Thank you, docents.
posted by anony mouse at 10:28 AM on June 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

I am a Boomer and do lots of volunteer work and I think it's all true about my age group. It can feel like the 7th grade all over again.

At one of my volunteer gigs management decided to hire a twenty something over a 70 year old with bad people skills. Holy shit! Most of the volunteers were crying in the parking, not speaking to the new supervisor, and cancelled their shifts at the last second. It settled down after a few weeks but I was really embarrassed by my generations behavior.

On the flip side I volunteer with another group of women, all boomers. We have our own fundraising gig that we do yearly. We do not have committee meetings ever, we hate them. We all know what to do and do it. We get together the day before the event and the day of and that is it. It is a heavenly group to work with.

What brought us together as an independent volunteer group? An incompetent twenty something volunteer coordinator that was eventually fired.

So I guess the problem of people being people spans every generation.
posted by cairnoflore at 10:51 AM on June 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

I run a group of volunteers once a month, who are mostly 30s-50s, and we do pretty well, so far. I pretty much have all the power in this group, so that helps, but if someone joined and I wanted to boot them, it would definitely be unpleasant, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. And I am very nice and appreciative to my volunteers; in fact, at the moment I'm trying to come up with a good end-of-year thank you because they've been so awesome.

My husband is in a different group, he's the youngest person there (at 41) the rest are 50-90, and it's a tiny group, and dear lord, the endless bickering over the smallest things, it drives him crazy. I can't help wondering if sometimes it's not a feeling of helplessness or disconnection driving it for a lot of these folks, who might be undersocialized and generally not feeling well.
posted by emjaybee at 11:40 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

It should be pointed out that only the very oldest Boomers are just now reaching 70 (though obviously this will start changing soon enough), so your assorted cranky 70+ volunteers are actually the Silent Generation.
posted by briank at 11:52 AM on June 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

Yeah, the majority of my docent stories (many of which are from previous jobs) are from ladies who are from the generation before the Boomers. They were protective of their position in the museum, swarmed the table to eat all the food at receptions (at some point we stopped serving cocktail shrimp), wanted to retell all the old stories despite said stories being rarely true or relevant, and I actually had one of them shake a cane at me. Some of them were delightful, and many of the ones at my current museum are really great with the kids, but with even the great ones, change is very difficult. But it's not confined to Boomers, it's just people who have been at a place for a long time and gotten set in their ways.

I admire the various docent coordinators I've known. Most of them are built of patience and can't retreat to a storage room when stressed like I can.
posted by PussKillian at 12:07 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a late stage boomer, it's absolutely true - we "destroyed the world", or more precisely, looted it to make Lear jets and Happy Meals - leading to negative consequences that will play out over centuries. The gen x and y and z will have to pay for our mistakes for their entire lives. And the only way that we as a group are going to lose our sense of entitlement is to die.

(The fact that these are probably 98% rich scions of rich families just makes this whole article worse...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:16 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the abstract, I tend to agree with Frowner's notes on ageism in society, but the Boomer generation is the one that had unprecedented cohort-wide standard of living and cohort-wide government-subsidized services and safety nets (including tuition at state universities whose total cost were once able to be covered with the wages of a summer's work). When that cohort achieved majority and power, they proceeded to dismantle and defund the very services that were given to them.

It's not every Boomer, or even most of them, necessarily. And it certainly doesn't include an equitable percentage of non-whites.

But no generation ever before them was given a golden ladder to climb. Then, as soon as they reached the top, they pulled it up behind them.

You may say my opinions are ageist, but I disagree. We're getting fucked by the Boomer generation, and their "Keep the Government out of Medicare" attitude, and their "Fuck you, I got mine" policies.
posted by chimaera at 12:46 PM on June 26, 2015 [26 favorites]

That's interesting. I've heard a ton about this from the other side. My mom, a former paid museum educator, is now a volunteer docent at two different museums. One of them hired a new volunteer coordinator who is about 24 and is, according to my mom, convinced that all the volunteers are morons because they are mostly older women, and older women are stupid. And I mean, I've seen some of the volunteer coordinator's emails, and they do come across as pretty condescending. I suspect that there are two sides to this issue, and part of it is that some paid museum staff don't realize that they're conveying a fair amount of contempt to their volunteers.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:27 PM on June 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Holy cats. I've had nothing but good experiences with docents but I've been on the guest end of the equation. I still remember the fantastic docent at the Tenement Museum from my visit 15 years ago, from whom I learned that Elvis was a shabbes goy when he was a kid. Guess I shouldn't be so surprised, but damn.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:31 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're talking about the Tenement Museum in New York, the docents there are all paid staff, which is very, very unusual for the museum world.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:10 PM on June 26, 2015

MetaFilter: the problem of people being people spans every generation
posted by epersonae at 3:23 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

(was going to make snark about gratitude for the unpaid dedicated, but) writing it in my bucket list; in a few years/decades find a "cool" modern museum - get in, get ingrained, become THE DOCENT FROM HELL! BWahhhh
posted by sammyo at 3:31 PM on June 26, 2015

I totally love all this "the Boomers, so selfish, golden ladder" etc stuff...first of all, it's the white Boomers, right? Not a lot of golden ladders if you're black. White Boomers from well-off families who didn't have to go to Vietnam. White Boomers from the richer parts of the US - not a lot of golden ladders if you worked in a mine in Appalachia, right?

And of course, once again, all the Boomers are totes selfish and had it easy - just like my mom and dad, what with the incredibly rewarding career as the assistant manager in an office supply store and the work as a medical typist and the years in retail, etc. Golden ladders!

And it's not like there are any left or liberal Boomers, either. No David Roediger or bell hooks, for example. Much less any quiet left liberals like my family (oh wait, they don't exist) who just voted democrat and third party left and donated money. No Boomers in unions - listen to that sucking sound as all my union elders vanish into the ether! Nope, they are all selfish and ignorant and had easy lives and are currently cruising the Mediterranean in their own personal yachts. Class and race aren't in play at all - it's just generations! That's why every generation before or since has been a miracle of equality and tolerance.
posted by Frowner at 5:04 PM on June 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

Eh, I think it's a "working with people" thing. I don't know if I want to tell any of the craziest stories from when I was admin for a docent program, but almost all of those stories involve patrons, not docents. To tell the truth, I miss working with the docents a lot. You know who were the absolute WORST? Teachers. Directions-ignoring, entitlement-complex-having, bald-faced-lying TEACHERS.* And now I'm one. Major facepalm.

*OK, and, according to the docents, Montessori schoolkids from a certain nearby famously liberal enclave--but I have no personal knowledge of that.
posted by wintersweet at 5:15 PM on June 26, 2015

Pro tip: (almost) every historical house/museum has a brilliant/obsessed docent who used to be, or ought to be, a professor. The secret is to call ahead and ask to be put in touch with the "best" docent, so you can make sure to get on their tour. Assuming you actually want to learn something, that is!
posted by Scram at 6:14 PM on June 26, 2015

You're right that I overgeneralized, Frowner, but I didn't neglect to state that it was largely white Boomers.

For the sake of trying to avoid any clear openings for straw-man refutations, amend my statement to generally be this:

X/Y/Millennial/etc generations are getting fucked over by those among the Boomer generation who achieved power. Those among the Boomer generation who achieved power with the help of university investment, infrastructure investment, science and research investment, government subsidy, and a healthier safety net are systematically working to deprive those who follow now of the very things that had been established by those among the previous generations who achieved power.

Even with all of those qualifications, I don't see much that exonerates the Boomer generation. Or more precisely, those among them who achieved power versus those among their Parents' and Grandparents' generations who did the same.

The original topic of this thread is simply an example-in-point.
posted by chimaera at 6:50 PM on June 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Correcting docents and bus station art, fun things to do while waiting to die ridden with boomer guilt.
posted by clavdivs at 9:38 PM on June 26, 2015

While perusing the Apollo gallery at the US Space and Rocket museum in Huntsville, AL my wife and I were approached by an older gentleman who proceeded to tell a lively tale about the exhibit we were viewing and went on to spend two hours giving us a personal guided tour of the gallery. I don't even think he was an official volunteer, just a retired fellow who had worked there during the Apollo program who had a membership and hung around to share his stories when he could. Meeting him was a wonderful experience and it seems the docent problem is an attempt to put that in a can and package it, which of course doesn't really work, because it's a very individual human thing.
posted by Bringer Tom at 12:32 PM on June 27, 2015

chimaera: "The original topic of this thread is simply an example-in-point."

Docents being bad is an example of dismantling safety nets and fucking over millenials? Wha?
posted by Bugbread at 7:22 PM on June 27, 2015

When you are 30 years old, it's time to get your own apartment. Some people have a hard time with that.
posted by y2karl at 8:38 AM on July 1, 2015

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