The "Aha!" moment: A conversation with our museum docents


1,971. Is that the number of stitches in the stripes of the Star Spangled Banner? The minutes it takes to drive from the museum to the Capitol building during rush hour? The final verdict on the number of licks to the center of a tootsie roll pop? No, no, and “the world may never know.”

1,971 is, believe it or not, the total combined years of experience possessed by the National Museum of American History docents! That’s my age times seventy! As a new member of the museum staff, I have been wowed by the museum's intelligent, committed, and endlessly fascinating docents. Over the next few months, I’ll be speaking with some of them and sharing their stories with you.

When I sat down with docents Barbara Naef, Jane Lee Taylor, and Miriam Goldberg, I was amazed not only by their experience, but also by their enthusiasm. “There’s almost 100 years of experience between us!” Jane exclaimed.

Docent Barbara Naef poses with cut-out of First Lady Pat Nixon at NMAH Barbara Naef and Jane Lee Taylor, NMAH Docents, reflect on Mrs. Obama's inaugural gown
Left: Barbara poses with the First Ladies.  Right: Barbara and Jane reflect on Mrs. Obama's inaugural gown

Interestingly, these three entertaining women were divided about the role that learning history played in their lives. Barbara has loved history for as long as she can remember. As an only child born in Indiana, she heard family stories from the older generations. “When I was in sixth grade, I insisted my parents buy me my history textbook so I could write in it and take notes!” But not so for Jane, who emphasized, “I wanted to come to be of service; it wasn’t about a love of history.” Miriam said she “hated history in school, so that made it very uninteresting.” However, once she realized the connection between history and technology, her desire to share that with the public blossomed over her 34 years as a docent. “My best moment was when a visitor figured out that cotton gin was short for engine. It’s an engine!”

That “Aha!” moment is what keeps these three long-time museum volunteers coming back week after week. “I feel like I'm a happy person when I leave here if I make one other person a little excited about something they saw,” said Jane, who has been a docent for 32 years. “We’re teachers,” said Barbara, an 18-year docent. “And it’s our job to bring history to life!” added Jane. “History is everyday life, and it’s all around you—it’s how people lived. History isn’t just dates, names, and places: it’s basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and how people provided for their families,” says Barbara.

Barbara Naef and Jane Lee Taylor have 52 years of docent experience, National Museum of American History Docents
52 years of docent experience!

Have you had an “Aha!” moment with a docent? Share your experiences with us below. And if you want to add your service to our docents’ 1,971 years of experience, check out the museum's docent page.

Susan Evans is a Floor Manager at the National Museum of American History.