Volunteer docents integral part of museum outreach with community

By: Paul Bello & Shannon Sarino, National Museum of Health and Medicine

SILVER SPRING, Md. – They come from varying backgrounds, but share an enthusiasm for history. They love talking with inquisitive young people and to adults with an interest in medicine or the Civil War. They place themselves on the frontlines for questions and make sure no visitor leaves without first receiving a smile or a handshake.

Volunteer docents, in so many ways, are not only ambassadors, but a lifeline between the community and the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). Docents assist in activities and lead tours throughout the museum's exhibits, which include specimens and artifacts related to military medicine, anatomy and pathology, biomedical engineering and human identification.

Lisa Weed, a retired forensic lab scientist, has been a volunteer docent for three years. In 2013, she was named the museum's Volunteer of the Year in a ceremony at Fort Detrick, Md. where leadership lauded her dedication, passion and curiosity for science.

"If people are here, they really want to learn. And odds are, I'm going to learn something from the group, too," Weed said. "I feel like I get so much more than I give sometimes."

Frank Bruno, a retired family physician who practiced in Columbia, Md. for 40 years, said NMHM meets two of his major interests: his professional interest in medicine and his personal interest in Civil War history. A doctor having served during the Vietnam War, he also makes a point of discussing the sacrifices service members have made when in battle.

"I like to see people become more interested in the history of our country. I try very hard not to glorify the Civil War, or romanticize it, but instead to delve into what some of the soldiers really went through," Bruno said. "My work here has forced me to read more and do research into the care of the wounded and the dead during the Civil War, which is something I might not have done otherwise."

According to Army Volunteer Corps regulations, volunteers must receive professional development training and an orientation prior to starting. At NMHM, volunteers embark on an introduction to the museum's history and current location, in addition to tour outlines, public speaking skills, and information about the museum's vast collections. Once volunteers receive their initial training, they are then asked to attend monthly meetings that further their development.

Volunteer docents at the museum are not paid, but are provided a unique and rewarding experience. In addition to their docent training, they receive a wealth of opportunities in and around the National Capital Region. Docents recently attended a professional development session at the commemoration of the Battle of Monocacy just outside Frederick, Md., and visited historic Gettysburg, Pa., for a tour of its battlefields and Civil War museum. They also represent the museum at various outreach activities, including the monthly NMHM Medical Museum Science Cafes and the third U.S.A. Science and Engineering Festival, the most recent of which was held in April at the Washington Convention Center.

"Our volunteers are an integral part of our public programs here at the museum," said Gwen Nelmes, tour program coordinator for NMHM. "They are a liaison between the museum and the public, committed to educating all ages on the impact of military medicine."

Docents have received a variety of awards over the years for their service at the museum, according to Nelmes. Fort Detrick, home to the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the museum's headquarters group, acknowledges a volunteer each year at a special recognition ceremony. Volunteers are also eligible to receive a President's Volunteer Service Award based on hours of service. Docents from NMHM have received this honor the past two years in a row, Nelmes said.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer docent at the NMHM must be at least 21 years of age and open to a flexible schedule that includes weekday and weekend opportunities.


Caption: A young person learns about the human brain with Lisa Weed (right), a volunteer docent at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, during a special 150th anniversary open house held on May 21, 2012, at the grand opening of the new National Museum of Health and Medicine building in Silver Spring, Maryland.