Docent Margaret Mann leads visitors through the Japan Gallery

The museum suffered a great loss with the death of docent Margaret Mann on Jan. 13. Margaret was a straight-talking, hard-working docent who zipped agilely on her mobility scooter through the galleries leading tours of the European and American Galleries every Thursday morning.

She dedicated so many hours to the museum, it is hard to believe how busy she was outside of HoMA. A self-described “biracial, lesbian Buddhist in a wheelchair,” Margaret published the well-received autobiography A Dramatically Different Direction in 2012. Along with being a successful writer, she was a counselor and community organizer holding an MA in social work and an ED.S in rehabilitation counseling. And she did all this working through constant pain. You can read more about her daily struggles on her blog.

A Kailua girl, Margaret had a 20-year career in Washington, DC, where she worked for national agencies that deal with women’s issues, such as the National Women’s Health Network and the League of Women Voters, and that addressed disability issues such as the Disability Right Council. And before that she served in the US Navy.

As she details in A Dramatically Different Direction, the sporty Margaret (she surfed as a youth and held a BA in physical education), saw her life take a sharp turn in 1997, when a blood vessel burst in her spinal cord while she was out to dinner with friends. She was instantly paralyzed.

Margaret moved back to Hawai‘i in 2003, and later joined the museum as a volunteer, first helping out with the Visitor Information Center. Then-visitor services director Vicki Reisner, who attended a conference on accessibility presented by the Kennedy Center, was tasked with improving accessibility throughout the museum in 2010 and she tapped Margaret to help her make an assessment.

“She was thrilled to help,” says Vicki. “We went through the museum, Spalding House and the Art School. She showed me what worked and what needed to be changed. She also showed me how she altered the routes for her tours so she could accompany the visitors throughout the museum. She assisted with signage—suggesting the most user-friendly language, and sign height and placement. Her diligence and expertise were invaluable, plus she was delightful to work with.”

Margaret also rated the museum restrooms by accessibility—coming in at No. 1 is the basement restroom beneath Palm Courtyard, which is reached via elevator. (Worst is the one in the theater—her scooter didn’t fit.)

She enjoyed her experience with Vicki so much, Margaret took the plunge and made a bigger commitment to the museum—she entered the two-year docent training program, “graduating” in 2012. Over the last four years, she volunteered more than 100 docent hours, far exceeding the required 50 hours.

“Margaret was extremely knowledgeable about our collection,” says Aaron Padilla, director of learning and engagement, “but she didn’t come across as authoritarian in the museum tours she gave. It was as if visitors were being led through our galleries by a friend who just knew a bit more than they did—and they loved it. To our department, she brought levity and perspective, which I very much appreciated. I will miss her wit, wisdom, opinions on all things, and chats in the museum colonnades.”

And when Margaret wasn’t giving tours, she was often in the galleries studying artworks simply for her own enjoyment.

Never one to pull punches, Margaret shocked many of her fellow docents when she announced at the annual docent lunch in December that it would be the last time her colleagues would see her. She explained that she had a tumor that had metastasized and would not be pursuing traditional treatment and talked about what they all and the museum meant to her. The room filled with tears.

Margaret made her last visit to the museum on Wednesday, Jan 10, when she had lunch at the café. “She wanted me to recycle her docent pin awards and handed them to me,” says Jan Tucker, docent and tours coordinator. “She looked well, but told us her time was short.”

Then on Jan. 14, docent Kate Keilman sent out this email on behalf of Margaret:

Aloha my dear friends,
If you are reading this I have now departed this life, happily and just the way I wanted. Imagine this…me leaping out of my wheelchair, dancing around, bounding into the air and floating up out of sight. Be happy that I am no longer in pain, no longer have cancer, no longer disabled and no longer poor. It has been a rough 20 years and I am so glad to give it up. What I don’t like is leaving is you…I have been so well loved, and loved so well. Everyone should have this experience, everyone should hear from everyone they care about how much they are loved. Thank you for being a part of my life. I am saving you a seat on the bus….

Margaret will be deeply missed.