Burke ranks looking for a few (more) good docents
Seattle Times staff reporter
Amidst saber-toothed tigers and fine-woven baskets, two dozen pairs of young eyes are directed toward a Silver-Crested Docent (Docentae wisdomus) at the back of the Burke Museum.
This is not a rare sighting. There are 25 of these educated tour guides who volunteer at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus, the oldest university museum in the West. The exhibits change, the staff changes, but the docents don't.
They can be picked out by their common cry, "Oh, this is interesting!" as they inform the Burke's 70,000 annual visitors, including the 25,000 students they lead on tours. On this day, erudite students are pointed to Pat Smith.
"She knows everything," Diane Quinn, the Burke's educational-programs manager, tells the group from the University Child Development School. "If I had a really hard question, I would ask her."
Most Burke docents are circa 1920 to 1935. Even though these docents seem to be walking advertisements for successful aging, Smith, 73, says, "We need new blood." Starting today and Wednesday, the Burke is offering a rare opportunity: their first docent training in five years. There is so much work for docents and other volunteers, Quinn says, that the six-week training may be offered quarterly from now on.
The Burke lived without docents from the time the Young Naturalists Society began collecting goodies in 1885 until the museum expanded into its present digs in 1964. That's when Seattle women interested in science volunteered to help the public understand what was behind totem poles, dinosaur remains and 3 million other specimens in the region's only major natural-history museum.
Docent scrapbooks from those days are filled with newspaper articles of what really mattered — "U.W. Anthropologist is Young, Attractive." But by the time Phyllis Pearson arrived in 1983, the docents had stopped looking like Doris Day and started looking like they were out of REI catalogs as the snapshots show them visiting the Mima Mounds, fossil digs and abandoned villages in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
"We're learning about things that are 250,000 years old," says Pearson, who remembers visiting the Burke in the early 1930s when she was 9 or 10. "I think most of us would just like to go to school all our lives."
Pearson is pretty typical of docents, who now include men. She had an interest in art history after she retired from teaching (she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the UW) but the art museum didn't need docents, so she applied at the Burke.
Twenty years later, Pearson, now a basket weaver of some note, can't learn enough about natural history, sitting in at UW classes and traveling to museums around the world. At 81, she sometimes rides her bike to the Burke and can't give tours on Thursday because that's when she hikes.
"These people have big lives," says Quinn. "They're not like people who don't have anything to do so they come over and work at the Burke. They have a million things to do."
The docents may give tours to preschoolers one day, college kids the next. Smith, a docent since being recruited from the King Tut Exhibit at the Seattle Center 15 years ago, says her task is to bring the museum to life for children. Since her husband died two years ago, however, she finds the children bring life to her.
"Know what I want to be?" a 4-year-old asked her recently after a tour, sending tingles of excitement down Smith's unfossilized spine — "a paleontologist."
The last round of docent training five years ago netted Doug McTavish, 54, who joined because he wanted to encourage young people to become "museum nerds" like him.
Now he's president of the docents, part of the new breed. He finds his hardest task with scheduling the "elderly or semi-elderly" bulk of the docents is "they're always off traveling."
No matter what the topic at their monthly meetings, McTavish says, they pepper scientists and curators with questions.
They're intelligent, interested and energetic, but she won't say eccentric.
"They have some interesting quirks," she says, but eccentric can be relative. "We are, after all, a natural-history museum. The docents may be the most normal people here."
Sherry Stripling: 206-464-2520 or email@example.com.
Information in this article, originally published April 8, was corrected April 19. In an article about Burke Museum docents, Phyllis Pearson was mixed up with another docent in one reference. The passage should have read: Pearson is pretty typical of docents, who now include men. She had an interest in art history after she retired from teaching (she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the UW), but the art museum didnt need docents, so she applied at the Burke. Twenty years later, Pearson, now a basket weaver of some note, cant learn enough about natural history, sitting in at UW classes and traveling to museums around the world. At 81, she sometimes rides her bike to the Burke and cant give tours on Thursdays because thats when she hikes.