Have you ever taken a tour at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington or its sister facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center? Perhaps you heard fascinating stories about the artifacts on display, or had your questions answered by a knowledgeable and engaging docent.
If you have, you've benefited from those individuals' passion for aviation and space, and their willingness to complete extensive training in order to volunteer their time for you, the visitor. (And if you haven't, I encourage you to take a tour!)
The Air and Space Museum's docent program takes all kinds, from 30-year-old nurses to World War II veterans, who successfully apply to the program and complete a training program.
Margy Natalie, the Docent Program Coordinator for the Udvar-Hazy Center, explained the 11-week education, calling it "an extensive course in aviation and space history taught in the classroom by the curators at the National Air and Space Museum ... some of the world's leading experts in their fields."
Don Stout, a current docent candidate, says, "You learn everything-and-then-some as far as the details ... from eight in the morning every Saturday to about five o'clock at night."
The course covers the history of flight, from before the Wright Brothers up to present day. Candidates are also assigned a mentor and receive materials about individual artifacts, which they are expected to study independently. Currently, Natalie has 225 docents just at the Udvar-Hazy Center, of which about 30 are candidates.
I met Don at the Udvar-Hazy Center, waiting for the space shuttle Discovery's arrival at her permanent home. The retired chemical engineer spoke excitedly about his experience thus far in the program, mentioning that he won't be considered a docent until his mentor decides his training is complete. He's a good example of the type of person you might find serving as a docent, calling himself a space nerd.
"I'm of the era of the Apollo, so I'm very interested in Apollo, and I've spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars buying out-of-print books on the Apollo Program ... so yeah, I've got it pretty bad," he said, smiling widely.
Don says that he's also learning how to read visitors. "What does your audience really want? You have all types - you have the space nerds, the aviation nuts, and you've got people that just see airplanes or flew on an airplane. You've got to kind of, on the fly, find out what their interests are."
Docents commit to two years service volunteering a minimum of eight hours a month.
Think you might want to be a docent? Check out the Smithsonian Institution's application.