Doing the docent thing

Becoming a volunteer and a guide at the Israel Museum was one of my favorable options," recalls Jackie Stapleton.

israel museum 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
israel museum 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
always liked working with people so after my retirement, becoming a volunteer and a guide at the Israel Museum was one of my favorable options," recalls Jackie Stapleton. "However, when the guides' training course opened I was in the midst of my chemotherapy treatments," she says matter of factly, "so I started at the information desk." After completing her treatments, Stapleton, 69, who came to Israel from New Haven, Connecticut, with her family at the age of 33, quickly became a vital part of the museum's staff of volunteers. What started in 1974 as a small group of 15 volunteer women, functioning mainly as museum guides, has grown into an extensive network. This elite and well-informed cadre of 350 volunteers (men and women) assist in every area of the museum from guiding, to information and research, to curatorial and shop assistance. Volunteers are mostly retirees who choose to spend their spare time navigating the museum. Nonetheless, their most important duty is to greet visitors with a friendly face. "Being a volunteer is more than just directing people through the museum," says Libby Lourie, who came to Israel from Australia. "Last week I encountered a group of American tourists who were awfully upset because they weren't entitled to free audio guides. I did all within my power to help them receive a few audio guides and on their way out the group's leader said, 'You made our day.' This kind of gratitude keeps me going." The museum staff first meet applicants for an interview, after which they fill out a questionnaire and specify details regarding their former education, experience and skills. "In order to be a volunteer one does not need to be in possession of an academic degree, but of a great motivation to learn," says Stapleton. "Since we work with different kinds of crowds who speak different languages, a volunteer's most important asset is languages. Our staff speak, besides Hebrew and English, Spanish, Russian, German and French." Stapleton describes the museum as no less than addiction. "To me, the museum resembles a sieve that 'sucks' you in and leaves no choice but becoming part of it," she explains with a smile. "The museum has such vitality to it that any contribution is acceptable. There is so much activity going on - new exhibitions are being launched, visitors who need to be helped and above all there is so much culture to absorb." "We think of ourselves as the elite unit of the museum and set very high standards for ourselves," says Iris Spero, an experienced volunteer, whose daughter is also a guide at the museum. Spero, the wife of a rabbi, made aliya from Ohio in her 40s. "Guiding the Prince of Belgium through the 'Shrine of the Book' he expressed his gratitude and said 'from now on whenever I read Isaiah it will remind me of you'," she recalls. "We are obliged to be knowledgeable since visitors expect us to answer their questions. In contrast to the Tel Aviv Museum where guides are paid, here at the Israel Museum in order to become a volunteer one must purchase a museum membership," she proudly acknowledges. When asked about the origins of the word "docent," the formal alternative of the more commonly used term "volunteer," she says, "I think it comes either from French or Latin but we only use this term on formal occasions." In fact, the term "docent" originally comes from the Latin word docere, which means "to teach." A librarian by profession, Spero was hoping to volunteer at the museum's library but was convinced to join the guides' course by Rose Fish, former head of the volunteers department. To become a guide, a volunteer must undergo a six-month course that covers the fields of art, archeology, and Judaica, during which the applicants are offered a glimpse into the museum's rich collections. They are guided by curators of the different departments and are also required to study independently towards their "final exam," a 90-minute simulated tour on a topic of their choice. "We have only had one applicant who failed the exam," says Stapleton. "I think it has to do with the fact that all of them are truly eager to become guides at the museum and study very hard. Among the museum's most recently recruited volunteer guides is Varda Umansky, a 58-year-old lawyer. Previously the legal adviser for presidents Herzog, Weizman and Katsav, Varda continues to practice her profession in the framework of special projects. "Now that I have retired it gives me pleasure to dedicate part of my time to art, one of my longstanding passions. Being a volunteer and a guide enables me to practice an activity that differs greatly from my profession," she says. Passing her exam became a family project. "I asked my husband, Prof. Felix Umansky [who lately became famous for being Ariel Sharon's neurosurgeon], to be my audience. Luckily I passed the exam successfully," she smiles. Umansky's eagerness to become part of the staff of volunteers is related to her love of the arts, which can be traced back to her youth. Growing up as the daughter of a painter she was always surrounded by art. After she married and became a mother Varda passed on her love of art to her children and she and her family became frequent visitors to the museum. "I see the museum as an island of cultural tranquility, a place where I can disconnect from everything that surrounds me," Varda explains. "In my trips around the world, I have seen art galleries and archaeology museums, but in how many places can one find a single museum that is made up of so many museums?" Recently the volunteers launched a new service - the host, who awaits and offers personal assistance to the museum's visitors in the galleries. "Their duties are to direct and enhance the visitor and make his visit a pleasurable event. But in order to become a host one must take a five-week course," acknowledges Stapleton. Though 75 percent of the volunteers are women, male volunteers do not feel threatened. "There are six of us male guides in the museum," says Marcel, a pleasant-looking man in his 60s who was an architect by profession. "We help each other when a new exhibition opens and there is plenty of material to absorb. Some of the volunteers become experts and guide their fellow colleagues through the exhibition," he explains. "Since I spend a great deal of my time in the museum, many of my colleagues became my best friends. It feels like one big family," he smiles. On a recent afternoon, Marcel waits together with his volunteer colleagues at the museum cafeteria for their groups to arrive. Besides a thorough education about the museum's collections, volunteers need to acquire one important quality - patience. Many of the groups that order guided tours tend to arrive late and the volunteers have no other option but to wait. On that particular day Marcel was expecting a VIP group from Canada. "When they finally arrive they usually need to use the toilets, or are either hungry, thirsty or simply more interested in the museum's shops," says Spero. When her group arrived that day it was delayed by none other than James Snyder, the museum's director, who gave them a thorough introduction to the museum and its future objectives. Her tour, which was scheduled for 2:30 p.m., began at 4 p.m. Naturally, Spero didn't express any protest.