about the issue

Lawyers from one of Pittsburgh’s “white shoe” law firms tell what they swear is a true story of a young litigator who found himself in charge of a work-related party to be held at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Despite two Ivy League degrees, his small-town roots left him out of the league when it came to fancy parties intended to recruit summer associates to join the firm. Having mastered Harvard’s hallowed halls, however, he began working confidently with the museum’s special events planner on a cocktail reception for 100, followed by a guided tour of the museum’s collection.

Clearly preferring depositions and voir dire to selecting hors d’oeurves and pastries, the lawyer worked through the excruciating menu selection process, eager to move on to the more interesting gallery tour that would follow.

“And how many docents do you think you will need, sir,” the party planner asked politely.

“Well, mused the lawyer, still focused on stuffed mushrooms and petits four. “How many docents can the average person eat?”

I have told this story many times, and although people always laugh, I sometimes have the uncomfortable feeling that, like the young lawyer, someone in the group really doesn’t know what a docent is. Could it be a donut? Or a tidbit encased in puff pastry?

Far from being a quickly forgotten treat, a docent is a treat that makes touring a museum’s permanent collection or a special exhibition unforgettable. Docents are trained volunteers, each with their own presentation style, who educate people as they tour a museum. At the Carnegie Museums, being a docent is a demanding job that requires rigorous training and a strong commitment. Before leading tours, prospective docents must master information that some equate to a graduate school curriculum. And even after completing the initial training, they spend hours studying every time a new exhibition opens or a group with special needs or interests signs up for a tour.

Still, docents say their work is very rewarding, and they highly recommend their own interactive presentations as opposed to walking around on your own or even taking a recorded tour. Sure, you can put on earphones and move about at your own pace, but there is something special about touring with a docent, who knows what’s on the recorded tour (and much, much more) and also can encourage dialogue among the group and answer questions. If you haven’t met a docent yet, you should, because one probably is your neighbor. Both the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History have docents, and more than a dozen of them are from Mt. Lebanon.

Anne Lutz Zacharias’s article, page 40, focuses on the docents from the Museum of Art, who bring artists and their works to life for people of all ages. In light of what these educators bring to the museum experience, perhaps we should rephrase the young lawyer’s question: How many docents does the average person need? At least one per exhibition.