Railway Preservation News

Docents; listen to your audience!
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Author:  p51 [ Mon Feb 26, 2018 12:59 pm ]
Post subject:  Docents; listen to your audience!

It's not railroad museum-related, but I had a very odd experience at an aviation museum, something that anyone at a museum can relate to.
I was at an aviation museum and saw a replica of a ball turret from a WW2 US bomber. I was looking at it, and a docent came up. He asked if I knew what it was, and I quickly told him I'd volunteered with a couple of groups over the years with such planes, that I was very familiar with them, as I'd actually got inside one that was under power and played with it for a while (until I got really cramped, and asked to get out).
He then immediately launched into how cramped they are, and pretty much everything I'd just told him I'd personally experienced.
Keep in mind, the docent wasn't a vet or had any greater insight into the operation of said device.
After the docent walked away, another person who was there (whom I didn't know) walked up and said, "Did he even hear you tell him you'd actually used one of those once?"
I shrugged and said I wasn't sure.
I didn't want to be rude to the man (as he was a very nice person), but it did cross my mind to say, "Uh, I just told you I was in one of those things once."
I've also heard this sort of thing at RR museums. At the RR museum of PA in 2015, I heard a docent go on about a PRR locomotive to a man who'd just said he used to be an engineer on that very type. Same thing; I don't know if the docent even caught that (but I did). The engineer just gave me, "is this guy for real?" look and I shrugged.
Looking back on it, I've seen this on several occasions.
I won't name names, but a former NASA astronaut once told me he was treated like this at a museum that had some stuff he'd personally used in space, and the docent there just kept going after he'd been told he as telling this story to something who'd used that very item in space, talking to the astronaut like he didn't even know what a rocket was.
Are your docents aware that from time to time, they're going to encounter people who actually know what something is? Are they prepared to not explain it on a baser level to those people (some of whom might know it through professional use)?
Are they so transfixed on their role that they don't realize they're doing this? Do they just not hear people? Are they used to visitors lying about such stuff (which in all fairness, I bet happens all the time)? Do they do this to prove their worth the museum? Or are they trying to impress everyone they talk with about how much they know?
Anyway, I’ve experienced and seen this plenty of times, where a docent is so fixed on telling a specific story, they just go with the spiel even after the visitor says they already knew it (in some cases, maybe better than the museum guy) or even more crazy, LIVED it. It’s silly to think that nobody who knows a subject would ever go to a museum dedicated to exactly that, so why do so many museum people treat everyone like morons?

Author:  Alexander D. Mitchell IV [ Mon Feb 26, 2018 3:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

This happens, and there are a variety of reasons this happens.

With docents at a larger museum (think Smithsonian, think IRM, think RR Museum of Pa., B&O Museum, CSRM, etc.), for every docent you have that actually comes from a railroad (or aviation or whatever) background, you will likely find one or more that are there for other reasons--they're filling out a civil service requirement for school graduation, they retired down the street and need a weekly excuse to get out of the house and see people, and for a rare few it's a "power trip" thing, a chance to be authority (think school crossing guard, mall cop, all the other cliches).

Consider that for every "walking encyclopedia" of history there, there will be far more that aren't, and worse get assigned to a random post every week. Ever seen the docent that's still riffling through the "cheat sheet" when you show up? I have. To be fair and nice about it, every time they offer to tell me about it and I politely respond that I could have written their spiel for them, have operated them in service, helped get another one into another museum, or whatever, they just politely relax and go back to studying--and once or twice they've picked my brain for more details.

I saw NPS "rangers" at Steamtown decades ago fumbling badly at the details for what was obviously a canned script they could only memorize at best. I felt badly for the guys, but when the one started getting hot under the collar at being repeatedly corrected by the couple railfans there for the likes of IDing "Nickel Plated Road Seven-Five-Nine" as a "2-4-8," and starts snapping back, well............

And, yes, there are the rare but still prevalent "pretenders" that have been remarked about here before--the guy that shows up at the Museum in old-time garb and spins factually strained or completely discombobulated "history" of his own mind's making, about how he used to fire these locos as his first job (obviously in utero), or how GM killed off the steam locos or Baldwin & Alco by making the RRs buy diesels or they would switch their auto traffic to other railroads, etc.

EDIT: And it's been pointed out to me that some museums--not just rail ones--suffer a horrendous turnover in docents for a variety of reasons: they skew elderly and die/become no longer capable OR student-age and graduate; the museum sets inflexible conditions that limit the appeal of the job very quickly; etc. I was told that at one regional museum with a fair number of docents the turnover was on the order of 100% for two or three years.

Author:  Dennis Storzek [ Mon Feb 26, 2018 5:49 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
This happens, and there are a variety of reasons this happens...

I saw NPS "rangers" at Steamtown decades ago fumbling badly at the details for what was obviously a canned script they could only memorize at best. I felt badly for the guys, but when the one started getting hot under the collar at being repeatedly corrected by the couple railfans there for the likes of IDing "Nickel Plated Road Seven-Five-Nine" as a "2-4-8," and starts snapping back, well............

So THAT'S why those guys were armed... cuts down on disagreements.

I'd say the biggest reason for docents rambling on with their spiel is they don't know what else to say, and they feel they are supposed to say something. As to repeating what you'd just said, it probably wasn't the exact same words, and the docent's understanding of the subject matter was likely so minimal he didn't realize you were both saying the same thing with different words, so he figured he had to get his words out just in case something was missed. It's got to be a bummer when you know you are supposed to be explaining this stuff to the public... and you know you have minimal understanding of the subject. I just tell people I'd be happy to make something up.

I remember back during the Carter years, IRM qualified for the "CETA" program, which got employees on the Gov't nickle. Some of those employees, mostly young women, were assigned to give tours, and given a stack of index cards to memorize, or refer to as needed. I remember one day watching one of these tour guides moving through a carbarn with a tour in tow, and it was obvious the stack had been shuffled... and no one in the tour had the heart to correct her. To tell the truth, I didn't want to embarrass her in front of the tour, either, but caught her later and pointed out that almost all the cars had a unique number painted on them, and if the number is 1565 and the index card says 604, maybe you need to search the stack a bit. That was, I think, a novel concept for her.

As for the rest of it, I never expect too much from docents, although occasionally I am pleasantly surprised. My wife and I stopped at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum last July, signed up for the "extended carhouse tour", and found we were getting a personal tour given by Art Ellis, one of the museum founders. Mr. Ellis must be close to ninety years old, and remembered much of the collection when it was in service. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

Author:  Larry Lovejoy [ Mon Feb 26, 2018 7:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

Dennis underestimated Art Ellis. Not only has Art been here since Day #1, he's 98 years old and does the work of somebody 20 years younger. Even better, both of his children and several grandchildren are active PTM volunteers and the fourth generation is now toddling around at Museum gatherings. Cultivate your volunteers! They're your future!

Author:  Brian Norden [ Mon Feb 26, 2018 11:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

I can't remember the details. But, I was told about someone's experience with a docent at a historic site (or was it a museum). The docent was partway through the scripted description of an artifact, when a visitor asked a question. After responding to the question the docent for some reason could not pick-up where he/she was interrupted and started over at the beginning of the recitation.

Author:  Alan Walker [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 12:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

When I was with Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, the trainmen would give a guided tour of the shops to interested visitors while the train laid over at East Chattanooga. I also worked as a tour guide. We were given rough scripts for use on the train and for use at our yard at Grand Junction. Our information packet also included basic information on all of the equipment owned by the museum.

As most of the equipment was in working order and the yards were working facilities, we emphasized that folks pulling tour guide duty should note what equipment was in the yard and realize that things could (and did) change-sometimes between trips.

During one of our DOWT events, an elderly man asked to ride the caboose on the shove move from the platform back to the yard. I was conductor and decided to let him ride with us. The caboose was Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway No. 41-an ex-Florida East Coast cab that the NC had acquired in the 1950s. He mentioned that he had worked in train service on the FEC in the 40s and 50s. He looked around the cab and pointed out where things would have been when it was in FEC service. Once I knew that he worked on cabs like this, I let him talk and I listened. Wish I'd had a tape recorder with me that day.

Author:  Otto Vondrak [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 12:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

Some docents/volunteers just have a script memorized and don't know how to improvise. Sometimes they are more worried about keeping the schedule and moving the tour group along than anything else. Yes, it's important to listen to your visitors, and include them when possible. Anytime we get retired (or active) railroaders at our museum, I try to get them to participate and share their experiences. Some are just happy to enjoy a ride with their families.


Author:  Bobharbison [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 12:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

I'm sure all of you have either experienced or at least hear about the opposite, where docents ad lib, drone on and on, spew information that's downright wrong.

For that reason, many museums insist that they have a canned script and stick to it. That avoids inaccuracies creeping in.

Granted, if you were the only person in the tour, conceivably he could have said "OK, well since you're familiar with this, would you like to move on?"

However, if not, and there were others, I suspect he was simply sticking to the spiel per protocol.

Author:  Bobharbison [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 12:51 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

Brian Norden wrote:
...the docent for some reason could not pick-up where he/she was interrupted and started over at the beginning of the recitation.

The reason is simple. When you recite something multiple times per day, you're pretty much on auto pilot as you recite it. There is nothing memorable about exactly where you are in the speech at that particular point. After you've given the same speech 100 times, they all blend together.

I'd compare it to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day. If you were reciting the pledge and got interrupted mid stream, do you think you could recall where you were once the interruption was done? I probably couldn't.

Author:  Ron Goldfeder [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 1:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

Here is another part of this discussion - be sure docents don't accept what visitors tell them without checking for the accuracy of what was said. I worked at the Museum of Transportation near St. Louis for 10 years and once was walking past one of our docents on a tour when he was describing our UP GE U28C locomotive, calling it an Alco. I waited until he was through with the tour and asked him about that identification. He said a visitor had told him it was an Alco, so he just changed his description. I pointed out that the bolt heads on the engine block were marked "GE" and that we had a sign on it with the info on it as well. I'd run into similar info from visitors myself there and at the St. Louis Science Center, where I also worked. I always checked out what I had been told and sometimes the visitor was correct, sometimes not. Those with firsthand experience working with things added a lot of information to what I had available to tell visitors. But some were just wrong in their information. You have to verify before you tell people things. And some things they tell you may apply elsewhere but not where you are. One docent was telling visitors that our tunnel had a ventilation shaft in the center. That would have been true for a much longer tunnel but not in ours that was measured in yards, not miles. Not all tunnels are the same.

Author:  train guy [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 2:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

I've had the opposite happen, where some know-it-all, done-it-all foamer keeps interrupting the guide to share his "knowledge and experiences" and ruins the tour for the rest of the group.

Author:  tim o'm [ Tue Feb 27, 2018 5:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

This is a very important topic to me, as Interpretation has been my job for 28 years now. Everyone on this thread has made a valid point.

When Alexander Mitchell mentioned the ranger at Steamtown, it reminded me of when this first came up. He went into such great detail on the argumentative ranger, that we all knew which one he meant. I printed it out and posted it on our memo board in the Steamtown Interp office. {I just checked. It isn't there anymore.} I may have meant to shame that individual at the time, but it is a lesson we all should take to heart. Find yourself in someone's complaint, and you will do a better job.

JC Penney wasn't far from wrong when he said the customer is always right. With luck, the customer is willing to listen when we reframe their facts so they realize when their details are off. Tour guides and docents also learn a lot when they listen, too. Even just hearing the same old thing in a different way can turn on a lightbulb over our heads to make things clearer.

I have found that if you take a visitor's question, that they often lead you to the next area you were going to discuss anyway. You acknowledge their questions and replies in your program. Not only are they more involved in the tour, but it helps you to understand what they want to know.

Train guy is right, too when he mentioned the know-it-all on the tour. I have found out that the visitors are on the tour guide's side more than the side of the know-it-all, and they put him in his place.

Interpretation is an exercise in psychology and sociology, as my experiences have shown me. We are always learning. Mainly, we learn that no one is perfect.

Author:  Mark Trebing [ Wed Feb 28, 2018 1:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

I had a Steamtown Ranger tell me that there was no present day coal mining in Pennsylvania. This in spite of a recent coal mine disaster in PA. I didn't challenge his statement. His statement was part of the answer to my question, "Where did Steamtown get it's coal?" I also noticed that my question seemed to inspire contempt.

Another time, the Big Boy cab was open for tours. With visitors in line, a Ranger wanted to close it two hours earlier than in the published hand out. I was in line, and asked why it was being closed early, and showed them the official Steamtown hand out. He didn't know why, but was adamant that it was going to be closed. At this point another Ranger walked up, and said that it could remain open.

To be fair, these are exceptions. My experiences with other Steamtown Rangers has been positive. They are for the most part very professional and courteous.


Author:  JDParkes [ Wed Feb 28, 2018 2:54 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

I once worked for The National Trust here in the UK and it became a bit of a thing in which, especially during the opening and closing of the place I worked I would be one of the few folks about, and it was always always the moment you'd find the person utterly enamoured with the place and ten thousand questions at the ready.

When you're on your own and you keep replying "I don't know, I am afraid" you can feel your soul leaving your body from the awkward english embarrassment.

When I brought this up, the response wasn't to simply hand me a pre-written spiel but instead they directed me to one of the oldest volunteers at the site, who had been there when the house was saved and the history was collated.

He told me not to worry about it, and he'd "lend me some notes." A few days later I was given a very full ring binder and loaned some of the smaller books written up in previous years and not currently in print.

This let me pick my way through the notes proper, pick and choose what I wanted or felt would be useful or relevant (in my first year I was almost always around the stables) and could thus write my own spiel and ad lib where I needed to.

It let me customise it so that I wasn't learning by rote and allowed me to get more involved with the place.

Author:  Mount Royal [ Wed Feb 28, 2018 3:40 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Docents; listen to your audience!

Don’t be a bulls**t artist either. If you don’t know, don’t make up an answer. Do visitors expect you to know? Yes, but you’re not helping anyone by making something up just to give them an answer. Instead, apologize and tell them the truth...... you don’t know. Don’t stop there. Make an effort to find a resource or someone who has the knowledge to answer their question. If that’s not possible, then they just may have to walk away without their answer. It’s unfortunate, but it should at least motivate you to find the information and be better prepared for the next time.

I’ve worked in the education and interpretation department at Mystic Seaport (possibly our nation’s premiere maritime museum) for eleven years. It is our job to educate and interpret vessels and exhibits that fill the museum’s seventeen acres. Even the most knowledgeable employees find themselves consulting the reference guides in our library from time to time, myself included. When confronted with such a situation, I make an effort to have an answer for the visitor before they leave. Sometimes, I’ll coordinate with a visitor to answer their question after a break. I’ll look up an answer while I’m on my break or at lunch and then meet up with them to answer their question. It’s worked so far and they appreciate you going the extra mile.

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