Be flexible. That’s the mantra taught in the museum’s docent training program. Visitors have different needs, artwork changes in the galleries, and you never know what might happen on a tour.
One moment that sticks out in Lynne Armstrong’s memory was when she took a group of special needs children on a school tour last year. School tours are designed to meet certain Department of Education benchmarks, but the students’ short attention spans made that a bit of a challenge. So Armstrong (pictured above, left) improvised and took them to the exhibition Rasa: Music in Indian Painting, where Indian music played continuously in the gallery.
“We danced to the music and we just played it by ear,” says Armstrong, co-president, with Mary Rhine, of the board of the museum’s docent council. “As the tour was leaving, one of the little boys, who was about eight or nine, and I was not so sure how much he got out of anything we had done, threw his arms around my leg and wouldn’t let go. It was amazing.”
Clearly, she had made a connection. It’s that type of connection that all the docents hope to make on every tour they give at the museum. With more than 31,000 students and adults taking over 3,300 tours a year, the 175 members of the docent council have their work cut out for them.
The core of the museum’s mission is education, and one-third of the docent program focuses on school tours with 1,113 a year, and the museum hopes to increase that number. About four years ago the training program shifted from a two-year program, encompassing all galleries in the museum, to a six-month course designed to specifically train docents in school tours.
Rhine also loves to see the light bulb go off in a student’s mind on a tour. She runs the loom portion of the Art and Life in Early America school tour, where students discover the hardships of colonial life, as they examine and discuss how objects were made and used for cooking, dressing, sleeping and learning.
“We go through the fibers, what clothes are made from and how they did it in early America times and we let them weave,” says Rhine, who is a weaver herself. “They are absolutely amazed by what they create—especially when the pattern [on the cloth] comes out. That’s really fun. I really enjoy that.”
Armstrong and Rhine have been docents for almost six years. Their tenure as Docent Council co-presidents ends in June, but they’ll stay on as advisors to shepherd in the new president. Consisting of 22 members, the board governs the council, which supports all educational tour programs at the museum’s four locations.
“Lynne and Mary have been tremendously helpful this year during their tenure,” says Betsy Robb, director of tour and docent programs. “They are a terrific bridge of communication between the docent council and the education department.”
Robb says that Armstrong and Rhine, along with the Docent Room Committee, have also been working diligently this year to reorganize the Docent Room—where they hold meetings, prepare and research tours and share materials—in preparation of a remodel, thanks to a generous gift from a donor. In addition they each maintained their expected 50 tour hours a year and raise the profile of the docent program nationally. They sent five docents to the National Docents Symposium in San Francisco last year.
Armstrong, who was born and raised in a military family, has lived around the world and, with grandparents and great grandparents in the textile business, she developed a deep interest in textiles as a young girl.
“My grandmother became a couturier in St. Louis, Missouri, at a young age,” says Armstrong. “I always grew up with textiles and a love and appreciation of what it takes to put beautiful things together. In traveling around the world, I was exposed to a lot of nationalities and customs, and food and clothes from the people who lived in proximity. I learned very early on to study their clothes and why they wear what they do—it gave you a real insight as to how they lived and why.”
She eventually turned that appreciation into doing textile conservation work as a volunteer at museums and organizations—in between raising three sons—wherever she and her husband, an Army lieutenant, were stationed. She first took classes in textile conservation at Winterthur museum of American decorative arts in Delaware. Over the years, she has done stints at Denver Art Museum, de Young Museum and San Diego Museum of Art. After being wounded in action during his third combat tour, her husband ended up in the finance industry which led them to O‘ahu eight years ago.
“That’s when I brought myself here to the museum and signed up to be a docent,” says Armstrong. She met Rhine in the training program, and “we became instant friends.”
Rhine, originally from Oregon, also loves textiles and found herself raising a family around the world thanks to her husband’s career in international business. She first got involved with museums when she joined the Ganesha Volunteers at the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta. She worked one morning a week cataloguing textiles in their collection. She has also volunteered with the National Museum of Singapore and the Art Museum at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“I always found when we moved somewhere, the best way to meet people was to join a museum group as a volunteer,” says Rhine. When she moved here eight years ago, that’s just what she did. Rhine volunteered at the museum’s front desk and then was encouraged to apply to the docent training program.
What’s special about the museum’s docent training program?
“One of the main pluses in my book is the fact that this is a smaller museum than some of those I’ve worked in, so you get to know people much better,” says Armstrong. “The fun part about any of one the docent classes, regardless of what the duration is, everybody comes to the group with a different background and set of expertise and skills and they all surface quickly.”
Rhine adds that “everybody has an interest in art, so we all have something in common. The groups bond very well, we are all very close.”
In the past six years, Armstrong and Rhine have gotten to know the museum’s collection intimately and appreciate its diversity, along with what it can bring to educate schoolchildren. It’s one of the things they love about the museum.
“We love being with the children. [Founder] Mrs. Cooke’s whole rationale behind putting this museum together was to help educate the children of Hawaii,” says Rhine. “There’s no other museum in Honolulu that has such a good Asian collection. Other museums have a different focus, but don’t have the wide range of artwork we have here.”
“Both Mary and I gravitate toward Asian textiles, but we have so many varieties that are here to view,” says Armstrong. “I think it’s always astounding to the visitors who come in from some other part of the United States or the world that this museum has such a wide range of good-quality artwork.”
Not only are the docents teaching schoolchildren and visitors about the rich collection on daily tours, they are constantly in a cycle of learning as new exhibitions open, tours gets revamped and the collection grows, along the museum’s beefed-up lecture program.
In fact, during the interview for this article, Rhine was carrying materials to help her brush up on the Kamishibai: Japanese Storytelling school tour. The tour, which incorporates the current exhibition Light from Shadow: Gold in Japanese Art, highlights this Japanese storytelling tradition that dates back to 12th-century Japan, when monks cycled from town to town, attracted an audience by selling candy, then taught valuable lessons through stories. That school tour was recently updated and Rhine wanted to make sure she was at the top of her game.
It all goes back to being flexible.