Saturday, January 10, 2009

I Enjoy Being a Docent

I don't know who the docent was when I first visited the Florence Griswold Museum (probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s.) But whoever it was did a super job talking about Miss Florence and the Lyme Art Colony. I remember thinking, "Wow, what a great story!"

My interest in that story deepened after moving to Old Lyme about ten years ago. In fact, I soon discovered that some of the artists lived on the lane I now call home. Lewis Cohen (and later Frank Bicknell) lived in the house next door. Gregory Smith had a house across the street. Will Howe Foote and Harry Hoffman also lived in the neighborhood.

I began attending events at the museum to learn more about the art colony that flourished here in the early years of the 20th century. After a lecture one afternoon, I started chatting with a woman who was a longtime volunteer at the museum. "I think you might enjoy our docent program," she told me.

She was right. I'm a proud alumna of the Docent Class of 2002 and I've found that telling visitors about Miss Florence's boarding house is a personally rewarding experience.

And I've also found that once you become a docent, you never stop learning. A good example of this is the recent exhibition Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women. I have always loved Vonnoh's statuette of a young woman that is in Miss Florence's bedroom.

From my docent training, I knew that Vonnoh was a noted sculptor and that the model for the small bronze was Woodrow Wilson's daughter, Jessie. Mrs. Ellen Wilson came to Old Lyme to study art, and the future First Family spent several summers with Miss Florence.

But to see a whole show of Vonnoh's works was to understand why she was so famed in her lifetime. And I also learned that after Mrs. Wilson became First Lady, she invited Vonnoh to exhibit some of her sculpture in the Red Room of the White House.

It was also wonderful to learn Vonnoh's personal story--that she was a very popular member of the Lyme Art Colony, that she called the summer home she bought in Lyme "a funny old place," even that she loved to dance!

We all have our favorite stories about being docents. I remember starting a group tour one wintry day. I had just finished saying "Welcome to Miss Florence's house," when a little girl raised her hand. She solemnly asked, "You mean she lived in a museum?" A perfect question and a great way for me to segue into the story of the house.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's great to hear of Linda's experience and love for being a docent. Docents are often the first people museum-goers encounter on their journey through the museum. Being a docent, though, can be a daunting task. I am brand new, from the class of 2008. I feel overwhelmed by the information I have to learn and feel pressured by the justice I must do to Ms. Florence's story. It's hard but rewarding. And, I learn so much from the other docents. They are treasures of information. They also offer much encouragement.

My favorite parts of the house are Ms. Florence's bedroom, which I see as a haven away from all the activity, and the dining room, which I see as a representation of all the activity. It is truly wonderful house.

As a docent, my next steps are to memorize more of the specifics of the dining room so, like Linda, I can offer in-depth explanations to all of the guests. As a researcher, I'm interested in looking more into Ms. Florence's sister, Adele, who was an artist herself and who was later committed to the Hartford retreat in 1899. I find all of this so interesting. Thank you, Linda, for your wonderful post!