At Danville's Blackhawk Museum, training more-than-decent
docents for 25 years
By Lou Fancher
For 25 years, Nora Wagner has brought Broadway to the Blackhawk Museum.
"It's showtime. It's a performance," Wagner says about the docent-led group tours and school visit programs she's been directing since 1991.
As programs director, Wagner has trained some 400 docents at Blackhawk and 650 throughout her career. Hired during a time when the Danville-based automotive museum was affiliated with UC Berkeley, Wagner says the museum today operates as a Smithsonian Institution affiliate. As such, the February 2015 opening of the Spirit of the Old West Exhibit has added allure to the roughly 55 classic cars and jukeboxes on display. The exhibit has attracted a nearly unprecedented number of visitors and a scramble to train new docents."I remember only one other time like this one. In 1991 we had a large exhibit opening and no trained docents. We took people and just trained them to direct people and answer a few important questions," the Berkeley resident recalled.
Blackhawk docent training has become a more rigorous regime under Wagner's watch. Docents must become museum members. Their 8-month, two-sessions-a-month training is followed by a research assignment: a mini-tour plan and one-page essays written about each of three selected cars. After graduation each May, new docents commit to giving two tours a month for a two-year period.
"Some people drop out because it's just too much," she says. "But if the training is too simple, they don't get enough grounding to be able to handle the content and to handle groups."
Wagner arrived at the Blackhawk after 16 years in a similar position at San Francisco's Mexican Museum. She took the job because she just "clicked" with then-director Michael Fox. "He was looking for a person who was grounded in educational programming and at the same time could step out on a limb and build a program that was just beginning."
Wagner says the best candidates are enthusiastic about new learning, but also connect the activity to something seminal in their childhood. It might be an early interest in science or a fascination with Model T Fords -- anything that fills them with animated, engaging energy that transfers to visitors.
Ed Holloway, of Walnut Creek, signed up in 1988 before Wagner arrived, but says he's learned to apply her "visual flow" principles.
"Nora stressed the importance of presenting a natural flow through the museum and how the flows would change depending on the groups or attendants," he said.
Michael Houston trained in 2013-14 and says he's gained an appreciation from Wagner for exact timing when delivering information to visitors. Instead of focusing exclusively on the exhibit, a skilled docent tunes into the audience.
"(It's) listening to your audience and "reading" their nonverbal communication to ensure it is the best experience possible for each member of your audience," says the retired Air Force Lt. Colonel. .
Linda Larson, of Martinez, graduates this year and brings a passion for teaching to the task. Wagner's training, she says, simplifies the goal. "In Nora's own words: 'If you have a good time, they will too,' " Larson says.
Of course, in addition to having a "good time," people become docents for the spirit of community.
A newly widowed Susan Schaefer, Danville, signed up in 2015 for the expedited Old West training. "I found I needed to be involved," she says.
Schaefer said she found Wagner's enthusiasm infectious: "We had to "jump in the deep end" and begin to give tours about a month into our training, and it was the best way to learn."
Mastering the skill of walking backward while speaking to large groups, keeping eye contact so no one "zones out" and approaching each tour with flexibility are techniques she learned from Wagner.
Fundamental to the quarter-century Wagner has been at the Blackhawk is an idea she holds and applies to herself daily: "Continuing education continues an interest you've always had. You're interpreting exhibitions for people of all ages and ethnicities. It's quality showtime."