Volunteers and the Smithsonian: A History

 Magda Schremp, Docent Program Manager

Most often the Smithsonian Institution Archives receives original documents that researchers then go on to use as they write the histories of various subjects. Occasionally, though, the Archives receives a history that’s already been written. Such was the case last fall, when we received records documenting over two decades of the meetings, activities, and administration of the Smithsonian Education Volunteers Advisory Board (better known as SEVAB). We also got an unexpected surprise: a brief history of the earliest days of the Smithsonian volunteer docent program that was written in September 1978. The 20-page document was authored by volunteers—Carol James, Gayle Baumgart, and Martha Jo Meserole—and compiled from SEVAB records and discussions with staff members and current and former docents. Like true historians, the authors noted that "just as the material in the files undoubtedly reflected the biases and points of view of the various secretaries who kept records and the chairmen who wrote annual reports, in a similar way this history reflects the point of view of the committee members who selected those portions of records they believed were pertinent to the docents' story."

Joan Madden in the South American Hall, National Museum of Natural History

The document describes how in 1954, the Washington, D.C. Junior League instituted a volunteer service to facilitate and enrich school children’s visits to the Smithsonian, a program that was staffed solely by the Junior Leaguers until 1963. While no records were found for this early period in the program’s history, the authors noted that the first written account of docents, recorded in 1964, tallied 43 of them.  By 1966, an Advisory Board for the program was in place and the authors highlight, without comment, a 1967 decision about docent badges in which Board members, all of them docents, "generally agreed that should the docent's first name be used, less respect would be received; therefore, the husband's name will be used." 





In 1968, the Board expanded from 6 to 11 members, to include representatives from each of the tour areas, and the roster of volunteers grew to 75. The Junior League agreed to fund the salary of a docent coordinator and training costs for volunteers. Beverly Ball, the first docent coordinator, was followed in quick succession by Edith Balfour and then Joan Madden, who eventually became the Assistant Director for Education at the National Museum of Natural History. After some growing pains and an unsuccessful program to bus children from the Poor People's Campaign tent camp to the museums, a call for management reform was made and the Smithsonian took over full responsibility for its volunteer programs in 1969. Between 1973 and 1974, the volunteer programs were decentralized when separate offices were created for each of the three major museums: National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), and National Air and Space Museum—each of which became responsible for all of their own educational programming. Docents, however, still continue to be governed by a central advisory board.

NMNH Foreign Language Tour Guides

When the new National Air and Space Museum building opened in July 1976, the size of the museum's docent corps jumped from approximately 25 to over 200. By 1977, the total number of docents across the Smithsonian was approximately 700 and had "grown to include many men as well as women in a docent corps as varied as the museums in which they teach." Today, over 6,000 volunteers contribute approximately 570,000 hours of volunteer services each year to the Smithsonian Institution, conducting tours, assisting visitors, leading educational activities, providing support for special events, and working behind the scenes.  

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.