Seniors & Aging

Whatcom Museum docents share their newfound knowledge during exhibit tours

Walking through Whatcom Museum with Jude Williams is not unlike following an artist through her gallery. For Williams, her work as volunteer docent for the museum has put art and history in new perspective.

“I’m not an artist,” says Williams, 64. “It’s more about curiosity about how the process actually works.”

Docents are volunteers who, after undergoing weekly training sessions, are put in charge of acquainting themselves with exhibit pieces to be featured in the museum. Williams and other docents dedicate themselves to discovering the history, inspiration and composition of pieces before the exhibit arrives. The group then comes together to share their findings.

“It’s divide and conquer,” Williams says. “You can use that as your blueprint for the tour you’re going to give.”

From six to 20 docents can work during an exhibit, depending on the collection’s size.

“The research is just so much fun,” Williams says. “Just having that intellectual workout is terrific.”

The workout culminates when docents are able to give 40- to 50-minute tours of an exhibit and share their newfound knowledge with museum visitors. Docents usually lead eight or nine regular tours during an exhibit, in addition to occasional private showings.

For Williams, curiosity doesn’t have to stop at the museum gift shop on the way out the door. At the end of her tours, she likes to hand out information where visitors can learn more about the art featured in the museum.

“Tour groups are usually very, very appreciative,” she says. “They’re a little bit more focused on the what, the why, and the who.”

Born in Ontario, Williams and her husband, Les, 69, moved to Bellingham in 1978. After a career with Wells Fargo Bank and raising two children, Williams turned to her passion for museums for a new challenge.

“I wanted to have something in place to keep me busy, as opposed to just wondering what to do with myself for 50 hours out of the week,” she says.

With the abundance of creative people throughout the Northwest, Williams didn’t have to go far to get her fix of museums and local art. Thanks to a strong arts community and a successful art program at Western Washington University, Bellingham and Whatcom Museum are hubs of artistic talent, Williams says. That local flavor to the art, she says, makes her work even more enjoyable.

“It’s art from our own neighborhood, from our own ground,” she says.

Williams currently leads tours of the “Mingled Visions” exhibit that features photographs of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Williams has also studied some of the pieces featured in the “Magic Windows/Framing Place” exhibit that showcases pieces owned by the museum and arranged by the museum’s curator of art, Barbara Matilsky. Both exhibits will be featured into May in the Lightcatcher building, 250 Flora St.

In the meantime, Williams and her fellow docents will continue walking the museum’s galleries, striking up conversations with visitors and sharing their expertise.

“It’s just this gold mine of teaching yourself how to look,” Williams, says. “The longer you look, the more you see.”