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 Post subject: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Sun Oct 01, 2006 10:17 am 
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Location: Eagan, MN
Not too long ago I visited a railroad museum out of state which shall here remain nameless. They own four steam locomotives, one of which operated within the last ten years.

The purpose of my visit was to document the current state of these locomotives for my website (www.steamlocomotive.info). None of the photos I shot will ever be published on my website, mostly because I do not wish to embarrass the docent who gave me the guided tour. I carried a micro-recorder to document the locomotives. Here follows their docent's comments about their four locomotives.

His first point:

"None of these locomotives will ever operate again, they're all friction bearings and it would cost more than $1 million each to convert them to roller bearings so we would be allowed to move them from the museum to our railroad. You can't run friction bearinged locomotives on real railroads."

Concering the locomotive that operated within the last ten years:

"Well after we took it apart we found out it was in terrible shape and would be impossible to fix. Needs a new firebox, new boiler courses, flue sheet and other stuff, and besides it would have to be converted to roller bearings, so there's no point. Anyway, someday we'll put it back together and paint it as an exhibit if we can find anybody that cares."

Concering their second locomotive, and their "active restoration project":

"Well this one is supposedly being restored to operation, but I don't know what the point would be as we don't have a million dollars to spend on making it roller bearinged anyway. See there, we had new springs made for it more than a year ago, and no one has done anything with them. They'll probably sit there on the floor for years till they rust. I don't know why, but almost all of our steam volunteers have quit. Nobody works on this junk anymore."

Concering their third locomotive, he said:

"This was really stupid; we spent a lot of money buying and getting this thing here, and it'll never get restored. Roller bearings. Complete waste of time."

Concerning their fourth locomotive:

"I don't even know what this is or why it is here. I hope they get rid of it."

Upon return to their "museum" he then asked if I'd like to become a member. Uh, no.

In any case, I don't think this kind of "docent" is that unusual. I've encountered his brothers and sisters in my travels. Perhaps it would be good to do a bit more training of these people as they become the public face of your operation. I can pretty well guarantee you that my trip to that operation was a waste of about 1800 miles of driving.


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Sun Oct 01, 2006 1:30 pm 

Joined: Mon Aug 23, 2004 12:37 pm
Posts: 439
Location: Missoula MT
Hmmm....

I've had similar thoughts of strangling docents when they constantly iterate that "these cars are barred by the FRA from ever running again (wooden passenger cars) and it will cost 1 million dollars to repair them). Any wonder why I can't get people to help me at least stabilize them?
Of course the operation is more centered on running the train (different gauge equipment from the displayed cars). Most of the equipment was inherited from a previous operator and operating a railroad "museum" has not risen to the top of priorities for the current operator (who has far more non-rail assets to manage than you can shake a stick at).
Sometimes you have to go around the docents (if possible) to find out what is really going on. However any docent that bashes collection decisions should get a good kick in the butt--as those sorts of comments can definitely hinder future fundraising to fix said objects/cars/locomotives.etc.


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Sun Oct 01, 2006 5:09 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 7:52 am
Posts: 254
Location: Baltimore
It sounds to me that the museum curator has fallen down on the job! It should be SOP for a curator to, once in a while, "shadow" each of their docents to see how they present themselves, and the organization, to the general public.

I remember a few years ago hearing one docent/coach host mention on an excursion that "you can tell these cars are old--hear those wheels squeeling on the curves? You don't hear that on Amtrak's modern coaches." Nevermind that the modern coaches have a level of soundproofing unheard of 50 years ago. And, the humor of it all, a few days later I was on Amtrak's northeast corridor to attend a business meeting and, yes, Amtrak's coach wheels squeel on the curves too--you just needed to be in the coach vestibule to hear it! -- Ray


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Sun Oct 01, 2006 10:18 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 9:35 am
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Location: Wilton, NY
He forgot to mention that all steam locomotives have to be equipped with ditch lights and a 26L brake system, be converted to oilburning and have a big red racing stripe on the side!


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Sun Oct 01, 2006 11:53 pm 
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Location: Pac NW, via North Florida
I had something like this happen at a very high-profile RR museum in the Northeast (won't say which one but it'd probably shock some of they knew which one). The docent pretty much spend all his time grumbling about how the museum leadership won't take any of his suggestions and do things his way...
I've also had some older folks spend the time griping about non-museum related stuff. I once at an aviation museum pretty much use the tour group as his own private captive audience, going on about why his grandkids never call and all the aches and pains he has to live with!!!


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 5:41 am 

Hi All,
Just a bit of info because it doesnt sound like the people who are doing the job havent been trained properly.
Andrew

A docent (the word being derived from the Latin word docere, meaning to teach) is officially defined as a professor or university lecturer, but the term has been expanded to designate the corps of volunteer guides who staff many of the museums and other educational institutions in the world. Docents are educators, trained to further the public's understanding of the cultural and historical collections of the institution. In many cases, docents, in addition to their prescribed function as guides, also conduct research utilizing the institution's facilities.

Prospective docents generally undergo an intensive training process, at the expense of the educational institution, which teaches them good communicative and interpretive skills, as well as introduces them to the institution's collection and its historical significance. They are also provided with reading lists to add to the basic information provided during training, and must then shadow experienced docents as they give their tours before ultimately conducting a tour on their own. Docents are kept up-to-date with continuous training and seminars.


  
 
 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 8:12 am 

Joined: Wed Aug 25, 2004 11:00 am
Posts: 21
Just a (probably dumb) suggestion, but why don't you send a copy of the tape to the museum's curator or BoD? If it were me, I think I'd want to know.

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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 8:43 am 

Joined: Thu Jan 26, 2006 11:08 am
Posts: 47
Location: Bonsal, NC, USA
I am sure we have all observed behavior like this many times, and to be fair, not just at railroad museums. All too many times it is simply assumed the so called docent will be a railfan of some sort, and know the subject matter well enough to talk about it intelligently. The transcript of the lecture in the origin post for this thread puts the lie to that idea immediately. The comments of that docent, and I almost hesitate to use the title in that case, are obnoxious to say the least.

The key here is training. Museum operators should never simply assume anyone, be it staff or volunteer, knows enough about the subject matter to discuss it intelligently with the public. (I know I will catch some heat for that comment!) The only way around the situation is to train the people doing the docent job in the proper way to present the subject matter, and give them the correct information about the exhibits.

This is the way most, if I may, "PROFESSIONAL" museums, exhibits, and other public places do it. Many years ago I served as a docent for a large zoo. Everyone on that team was required to sit a two day class once a year, and go through a daily orientation session each day we were doing the job. This is not wasted time. It is absolutely necessary if we are to provide proper information.

This training should, of course, include all the historical and technical information to be presented to the public, but there is another component to it all too many of us miss, and that is the marketing aspect.

Anything said by the docent should be in a positive context. The negative comments we read in the initial post of this thread have no place in the information being presented. They sound like the sort of petulant things we hear all too many railfans say when they are just shooting the bull among themselves. That is not the sort of image we want to present to the public.

Many small museums do not have a docent program, and rely on all volunteers to answer questions for the public as they come up. While I would strongly recommend the establishment of a properly run docent program for all of us, I do recognize this will take many forms in reality. We can, however, provide some basic, standard information to all our volunteers. Consider doing a small (two to four page) pamphlet of key facts to be given to every volunteer on the property. That will at least give them a quick reference guide they can use for most questions, and instruct them to refer larger or more detailed questions to a designated person in the organization able to answer them. Just this small step will go a LONG way towards helping with the problem.

The bottom line here is still TRAINING! Regardless of how large or small we are as a museum, those staff and/or volunteers having contact with the public should be properly trained to present interpretive information about our exhibits. These people are our front line. The public perception of our docents will be the way the public sees the museum as a whole.

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Bob Crowley
Corporate Secretary
New Hope Valley Railway
North Carolina Railroad Museum
East Carolina Chapter, NRHS
Bonsal, NC, USA
www.nhvry.org


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 11:41 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 7:19 am
Posts: 5686
Location: southeastern USA
And then there are the genuinely mentally ill.

One such infamous individual haunted Spencer Shops in the good old bad old days, dressed in a conductors uniform, despite his having no connection with the facility or any railroad.

He would show up, grab tourists, and take them on guided tours through the off-limits parts of the site, while spouting misinformation. The majority of his victims would find themselves lost in the industrial bowels of the decaying buildings, with only what they now knew was a crazy MF as their resource to find their way out.

I lost count of the families I rescued. Always thought he would be a good character in a play or novel.

One way I judge organizations I consult with is by how many times different members approach me in an effort to coopt me into their political agenda, whatever it may be. The more the infighting, the more internal problems they must deal with before any actual progress can be made to happen.

dave

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Santayana: "He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it."
Corollary: "He who does is doomed to watch those who don't repeat it anyway."


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 Post subject: It goes both ways
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 12:03 pm 

Joined: Thu Sep 16, 2004 7:17 pm
Posts: 547
Location: Ballard, WA
I know that Docents, or where I come from "presenters", are bombarded by a bunch of techincal questions by hardcore railfans to slip them up. It's hard to tell them how to present something if they are not the one who constantly works on the inner being of the beast. I had a visitor the other day trying to tell me that a Mason was a Shay, that the three engines were on the other side of the cab not visible from the platform but he knew they were there, all while I was sitting in the hogger's seat.
It would be nice if seasoned mechanics could interpret equipment, but they are reserved for the ongoing task of keeping them in order!


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 Post subject: Re: It goes both ways
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 1:03 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
Posts: 9262
Location: Somewhere north of Prescott, AZ on the Santa Fe "Peavine"
I agree that I shouldn't expect every docent to be a walking encyclopedia of information on everything the place has. But at the same time the most useful--and often least-used--phrase in such a situation should be "I don't know; let's look it up right over here....."

On the other hand, I strongly remember National Park Service rangers guiding my group around Steamtown NHS proudly and loudly describing things like the "Boston Maine 2-4-6 locomotive" or the "Reeding Railroad passenger locomotive". Unfortunately, there were a couple railfans in my bunch that attemped to quietly and discretely correct him, which led the ranger in question to counter with a "the louder you are, the more correct you are" strategy.

We seem to balk against appropriate signage, as they either interfere with photos or they get hard to relocate when the mobile equipment gets moved about. (Kudos to the B&O RR Museum for their new and excellent signage, which I believe was part of a grant.) But look at the typical high-end art museum. They typically offer guide books and/or audio tour packages for rent for those who desire a more informative and complete interpretation of the exhibits. How about, just as an example, hand-held portable DVD players, that would allow the patron to cherry-pick information on the specific exhibits in which he or she is interested (coaches, items of the PRR, social history context, etc.) as they stroll?


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 Post subject: Re: Of Docents, Directors and Board Members
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 1:25 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 2:46 pm
Posts: 570
Location: St. Louis, MO
Docent or volunteer management can be a real headache, as has been described, calling for constant vigilance by the informed members of the staff. The serious training suggested is the answer, but unfortunately is hard to do at so many railroad museums. And when much of the senior management has no background in the history or technology the problem is even worse, as they can listen and not realize that there are any problems if the person sounds entertaining and friendly. It can be difficult when you have to tell a board member, the one you thought most informed, that the IC 2-8-0 he referred to as a “branch line loco” was the heaviest freight engine on that line when built, despite how it ended up in the 1950s. In the 10 years I was associated with a major railroad museum I ran into many instances where the volunteer or docent ran “off the rails.” We didn’t have a classroom based training program, but all were taken on several tours by others with experience as well as given a script describing items on exhibit. Additional handouts described items off the path of formal tours, and there were signs for the great majority of items that most visitors saw, although not for everything on the grounds. Some of the folks I’m talking about were volunteers, others were paid to guide visitors. Subject knowledge was something that most did not bring to the job, just enthusiasm and a willingness to speak, and that includes most of the railfans and modelers. These all too often thought they knew a lot but really didn’t. Often this combination led to strange “facts” being presented. One thing that it is just hard for some people to say is “I don’t know.” They feel they should be able to answer any and all questions from the public, something no one, myself included, can do. One guide stood in front of a GE U28C with its hood removed and its engine visible and was calling it an ALCO locomotive. When asked why he said a visitor told him about our “error.” This despite the sign as well as the heads of all the bolts on the engine being marked “GE.” All had been cautioned not to accept anything a visitor said as correct without checking it out for being factual, but some visitors can be quite convincing, even though they are entirely wrong. In another case a guide was telling visitors that the pilots of steam locomotives (you can imagine the word he was using) were changed from having horizontal bars to vertical ones as cows could climb the horizontal ones. He was standing in front of our 1858 locomotive with horizontal bars in its pilot at the time. I took him one track over and one loco back to show him a N&W loco from 1942 which also had horizontal bars on its pilot. He had seen a staged photo of a cow on an engine’s pilot deck and without further inquiry deduced the “facts” he was presenting in a case of excessive enthusiasm, no checking, and failure to recognize the collection contained items that should have made the error obvious. I’m sure others could go on and on with more examples.


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 Post subject: Re: Curb Your Docents
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 1:59 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 29, 2004 12:25 am
Posts: 51
Dave wrote:
And then there are the genuinely mentally ill.

One such infamous individual haunted Spencer Shops in the good old bad old days, dressed in a conductors uniform, despite his having no connection with the facility or any railroad.

He would show up, grab tourists, and take them on guided tours through the off-limits parts of the site, while spouting misinformation. The majority of his victims would find themselves lost in the industrial bowels of the decaying buildings, with only what they now knew was a crazy MF as their resource to find their way out.

I lost count of the families I rescued. Always thought he would be a good character in a play or novel.

One way I judge organizations I consult with is by how many times different members approach me in an effort to coopt me into their political agenda, whatever it may be. The more the infighting, the more internal problems they must deal with before any actual progress can be made to happen.

dave


That's almost funny. It so reminds me of an individual that my bride and I met on a Union Pacific excursion from Proviso to Butler (Chicago to Milwaukee) back in 1996 behind the 844. It was a great trip, but there was one guy who was dressed in full gear, heavy coat, hat, gloves, scarf... you name it. ( it was mid summer at the time) He sat in the vestibule and shouted out orders at anybody he could see. I could tell that this guy's cheese had slipped off his cracker, but I am sure that a lot of the other passengers just thought that he was some hard nosed employee. My wife soon started to call him "The Imposter", and we still remark about him from time to time. Just yesterday I drove past Proviso with my bride and we still had a laugh over it.

Steve

PS I had a post on this topic back in late April or early May about museum tour guides. It pretty much covered this ground.


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 Post subject: Re: It goes both ways
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 2:14 pm 

Joined: Mon Aug 30, 2004 3:24 pm
Posts: 456
Location: Scranton, PA
{ I strongly remember National Park Service rangers guiding my group around Steamtown NHS proudly and loudly describing things like the "Boston Maine 2-4-6 locomotive" }

Really, everyone knows it's a 2-4-6-8 locomotive. (insert chuckle here) Unfortunately, even when your profession is to lead tours and fine tune the presentation so that the facts, entertainment and true education are balanced for a general or even specific audience, the above problem will still show up. Call it the "bad luck of the draw," on your tour, but each ranger might see the tour as a chance to improve on the last tour, or most recent among 1000. However, the visitor only sees or hears what is presented on that one and only tour. We often forget that.

While I am repeatedly complimented on my presentations, I know that my style is not everyone's cup of tea, and some visitors avoid me. I also acknowledge that I still have a lot to learn. The bad news is my brethren aren't all that humble. Some believe the badge, or uniform or patch make them the authority, and can change facts because of this.

I am more willing to give a volunteer more slack than a paid individual, but at some point, I still want a good delivery of the facts. On a "familiarization tour" of the various Scranton area museums and attractions, I remember how all the guides told us in the group they wished they had more time to deliver the "real tour." But, they had plenty of time to chitchat about their grandchildren. And the beat goes on...
Tim O'Malley, NPS Ranger for 17 seasons.


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 Post subject: Re: It goes both ways
PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 4:22 pm 

Joined: Thu Aug 26, 2004 2:50 pm
Posts: 2457
Location: Northern Illinois
tim o'm wrote:
...I am more willing to give a volunteer more slack than a paid individual, but at some point, I still want a good delivery of the facts.


Ah, but the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. I had the interesting experience years ago, of watching a "tour guide" (we didn't call them docents), a local high school girl who was not a railfan, but an employee paid under Jimmy Carter's C.E.T.A. program, go from exhibit to exhibit, giving totally incorrect information about each. She had been given a stack of cue cards, which either she had dropped, or the cars had been stacked back in the barn in a different order from the order the cards had been prepared for. I shadowed along, hoping to find a time I could get her tour straightened out without embarrassing her, to no avail. The interesting thing was not a single person on the tour complained, commented, or asked why the number painted on the car didn't correspond with the number with which she started each segment of her spiel. Maybe they knew and didn't want to embarrass her, maybe they just didn't care. After she finished I asked her to next time confirm the car number first, before she read the card, an she was indeed embarrassed by the whole affair. Tour guides were by no means my area of responsibility, but I wonder how long this had been going on.

Which raises an interesting question. Many people make the statement that it doesn't matter if we change the brake schedule, or the fuel, or whatever on an engine, because the public won't know, or won't care. So why are we worried about what we tell them?

For my own part, I only go on organized tours when it's the only way to gain access. In my experience with things that I have enough interest in to become knowledgeable about, I find that the best tours still contain a good amount of mis-information, and it goes downhill from there. I have to assume that it's no better for things I'm ignorant of, so why take the tour? If something catches my interest, I'll do the research on my own.

A good place to start that research is with any signage on the display, as one would expect that it is less prone to personal bias, as there should be some level of peer review before it goes on display. Then again, maybe not, but at least it gets the general facts all together in one place, where it is easy to note them and check them later.

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Dennis Storzek


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