Today’s post is by Museum docent Rich LaVere.
Right about this time last year, I found myself in a unique position. After closing a video and photography studio in Elmira, N.Y., that I ran for 12 years, I faced life as a freelancer. Having more time on my hands than I was accustomed to, I set out to find new adventures and opportunities.
I read a Facebook post from The Corning Museum of Glass; they were looking for volunteers for their docent program. To be honest, I barely knew what a docent was (it’s a person who serves as a guide and educator for an institution), but I knew the Museum had a stellar reputation, and it seemed like a good opportunity to stretch a bit.
Eventually, I was asked to come in for an interview, then a “meet-and-greet” session with other applicants and Museum staff, and finally, acceptance into the program. I was super-excited to get my “docent-in-training” badge, to the point that my friends and family quickly tired of hearing about it. Their first question was usually, “What’s a ‘docent’?” followed by “How much do you really know about glass?”
As it turns out, not much.
I was quickly introduced to a whole new world for which I was totally unprepared. The Corning Museum of Glass, I learned, has over 50,000 objects in its collection, and at any time approximately 15,000 are on display. In our first docent training sessions, which were held simultaneously with experienced docents, my head was swimming with a whole new vocabulary. Flameworking. Coldworking. Blown Glass. Cased Glass. Mold Blowing. And that was just technique … there were artists to learn, with names like Libenský, and Brychtová, Tagliapietra, Toots Zynsky.
There were intensive lessons on history, science, learning theory, museum theory, and psychology. There was even a session with the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy improvisation group, where we learned to think on our feet quickly in a fun and safe environment. We had hands-on sessions where we worked with hot glass, flameworking, sandblasting, and fusing. There were weekly training sessions spanning several months; it amounted to a college-level education in all things glass.
It was all very overwhelming; every time I walked into the Museum I was mildly terrified that I would somehow screw it all up. But soon, I was assigned a docent mentor, Ed, who worked with me to calm my frazzled nerves, allowed me to shadow him on several tours, and slowly showed me that the months of training were having an effect. I could speak intelligently about subjects that used to seem arcane or distant. I developed an appreciation for different forms of glass (particularly Czech art glass … who knew?). My library of glass books went from zero to “I need to build a new shelf in my library to hold everything.” I did practice tours with my mentor, and even experimented with friends and family, taking them around the Museum and getting valuable feedback. Ultimately, I gave my first tour to a group of art students from Corning Community College. The students were fun, engaging, and it was a great experience.
I’ve been doing this for several months now, and I enjoy every moment. Every tour is a chance to share a little of what I’ve learned, interact with our guests, and experience this amazing place. I’ve watched world-class glass artists at work, have had them sign their books, and even ran across a few of them while touring. It never gets old.
In fact, I can honestly say that of all the experiences I’ve had in my professional career, this is among the very best. Everyone at the Museum—from the administrators to the curators and glass workers, and gift shop attendants—are laser-beam focused on providing an excellent experience for our visitors. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
You should really come visit. And be sure to take a tour!