For Students

Get a Firsthand Perspective: Join UMMA's 2014-15 Docent Class

Images (from top to bottom): 1) UMMA docent Ina Sandalow leads a tour with students from Ypsilanti High School. 2) Marlene Ross and 3) Jim Frenza tour with students from the Detroit School for the Arts. 4) Lonna Petrie prepares for a lesson on Louise Nevelson. 

A docent is a teacher, guide, and interpreter. That definition doesn’t begin to explain, however, the many exciting and satisfying components of the docent program. Docents talk with each other and patrons about art and life, they inquire into the history of art, and they engage their imagination every day. If you are a curious and creative person, you may want to consider joining the 2014/15 class, forming now. Pamela Reister (PR), Curator for Museum Teaching and Learning, recently talked to current docents Jim Frenza (JF), class of 2011, and Sherri Masson (SM), class of 2008, about their experiences in teaching and learning with UMMA's collection:

PR: What made you want to be a docent? 

SM: I fell in love with art museums while studying abroad in college. They are the first places I visit when I travel. That, and a lifetime of working with children made docent work seem like a perfect retirement opportunity.

JF: I have loved art and museums since I was a teenager growing up in Detroit and visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts, and I have been able to visit great museums in this country and Europe as my appreciation for art in its many manifestations grew over time. I jumped at the docent opportunity as a way to deepen my own knowledge of art and to share my enthusiasm with young people.

PR: What do you do as a docent—big picture.      

SM: As a docent I introduce visitors, young and old, to the magic of art in a space that encourages conversation, inquiry, and imagination. I want to inspire learning, just as I hope I did in the classroom as a teacher.

JF: As part of a team I plan tours on themes related to school curriculums and/or group interests, and I lead students through the Museum to visit five or six works related to the theme.  I try to put the kids at ease and to make the teaching as interesting and enjoyable as possible, so that the students, some of whom rarely if ever get to visit a museum, have a good time. I think of it as gently educational. We docents draw on each others’ talents and knowledge to make the student experience as rich as we can.

PR: What do you like most about your work at UMMA?   

SM: Interacting with groups of children, creating tours, and forming friendships among other docents.

JF: I get great satisfaction from the interaction with kids during a tour. Working with other docents and planning a good tour can be rewarding, but the real payoff is seeing young people develop their own insights into the works we visit.

PR: What is the most unexpected benefit to you personally about being a docent? 

SM: I've had to continually challenge myself both intellectually and creatively. It's not a repetitive process. Every tour is a unique experience. 

JF: This is a hard one because the benefits are many. To settle on one thing, I'd have to say that I did not anticipate the level of friendship and support that has been part of the docent experience. A shared love of art creates a special bond among the docents and the Museum staff. It makes a person want to be a very good docent.

UMMA: What do you think about the UMMA and its collections? Do you have a favorite work of art?

SM: I'm impressed with the breadth of UMMA's collection and find it exciting to be in a place that is constantly adapting to new technologies and innovations—yet holds on to its traditions. My favorite section of the Museum to tour is the Modern and Contemporary gallery. That collection is diverse and seems to spark the liveliest conversations with kids.

JF: I came into the program as a long-time visitor and member of the Museum. It is a special place, and it compares very favorably with other museums of its size. It is intelligently curated. I don’t have a particular favorite, but I find myself spending more time in the Asian and the modern and contemporary galleries as time goes by.

PR: Any special memories of your interactions with visitors/kids on a tour?

SM: I especially love any opportunity to have kids write in the galleries. One high school teacher sent us the finished products of the writing her students had begun on their tour, and it was exciting to see evidence of the tour's impact.

JF: During the current school year there have been a couple of tours with high school students from Ypsilanti that were terrific—the kids were engaged and asked very good questions, of me and of each other. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to tour with incoming international university students. But the truth is there haven’t been many tours with kids of any age that I didn’t really enjoy.

PR: Describe a typical docent.

SM: She/He has pride in the institution and is passionate about art, and is a life-long learner and enthusiastic about sharing their learning with visitors of all ages. They are also collaborative and flexible, because in the end it's a team effort.

JF: I don’t know that there is a “typical” docent—we are a very diverse crew.  But I think it’s safe to say that a good docent is curious, patient, likes spending time with kids and doesn’t talk down to them, and is happy to share his or her insights and knowledge and experience.


If you think that you would like to join the UMMA docent team, follow this link for the requirements of the program and for the application, or e-mail Applications will be accepted through April 4, 2014.