Erik Holland (Director, Education & Interpretative Services at the North Dakota Heritage Center) and Megan Gately (Education Programs Coordinator, Education and Outreach Division at the Arizona Historical Society) presented this session at the American Association for State and Local History annual conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, in October. After a lot of positive feedback and requests, we decided to share our presentation through a post.

Before diving into discussion over docent/guide training programs, definitions help everyone get on the same page of the various roles and responsibilities in your museum. Check out these definitions from to see which are relevant to you and your museum.

  1. Docent – A volunteer or paid educator trained to further the public’s understanding of the natural, cultural, and historical collections or sites of an institution or facility.
  2. Educator – A person involved with the overall process or practice of facilitating learning. Educators often specialize in specific content areas or academic disciplines. Look at the adjectives/descriptions and see what best describes your people
  3. Explainer – A person who is knowledgeable about a resource and is skilled in teaching others about that resource.
  4. Facilitator – A person who encourages and enables a process, such as learning, planning and training, interpreting, or teaching.
  5. Guide – A person who is knowledgeable about a resource and is skilled in teaching others about that resource, and often accompanies visitors from place to place in the area of the resource.
  6. Interpreter – A person who employs a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.

After you identify what type of frontline staff you work with and what they do, you can diagnose your program is (i.e. dwindling, dull, and/or dying). Check out the adjectives/descriptors that best describe your program.


  • boring, stale, irrelevant, weak, poor, arousing little or no interest or excitement, not vivid, not sharp, causing boredom, tedious,  uninteresting


  • reduction in numbers, fewer new recruits, to become smaller and smaller, shrink, fall away, degenerate


  • aging, about to die, on the point of death, drawing to a close, ending, cease to function

As Erik and I discussed reinvigorating docent/guide programs, we realized that many programs needed to fuse in new approaches and techniques. Our approach breaks up a traditional training program where museum staff are the experts and docents/guides are the “empty vessels.” That filling a vessel technique was then used with museum patrons and often left them feeling detached and uninspired by what the museum had to offer. So both of us took the 5 main components of a vibrant program (content, homerooms, tools, delivery techniques, and staff and community presenters) and designed them to match the different needs of our institutions. We hope to share with you our architectural design so you can adapt our successes into your program.

Content is an important part of any training course, but not the only piece. I designed my 10-week docent/guide training program into 2 parts every week, homeroom and activity. Homeroom is the first hour where we discuss content and incorporate staff from the museum and community speakers. The activity portion of the training was spent in the galleries and being actively engaged in the museum space. What better way to model the type of learning you want for patrons then for your guides/docents to feel it themselves? Erik and I combined the activities we learned along the way or developed ourselves to help create engaging, participatory, and dynamic experiences for your guests. Hope they help you jumpstart your programs and boost your institutions!

  • Station programming (creating stations within the galleries via carts or places where primary resources can be shown off)
  • TEACH in the Gallery (conduct your content presentations or speaker presentations in the galleries)
  • History on the Run (5 minutes max, yes timed!, researched historical stories/presentations done by each docent/guide and then collected/shared with group for quick snippets of storytelling in galleries)
  • Chronological  vs  Thematic (finding threads of THEMES rather than chronological order, this also helps teachers with specific standardized curriculum objectives)
  • 90 seconds (even quicker snippets or interesting connections between topics and/or items within galleries)
  • Object of the Month (work with your Collections Dept. to get your guides/docents working with objects from your collections and selecting objects for them to research, learn about, and share with patrons/staff/community)
  • GEMs – (Guides Emeritus Members) a way to keep our valuable guides/docents involved but allow them a avenue to retire gracefully

We are thrilled to share with you our thoughts. Please leave or comment, an anecdote, or throw more ideas onto the pile to help inspire others.