Ginger Lawson has always been fascinated with the city of Portland.
A history buff, Lawson has collected random bits of the city’s history over time. But, before 2008, she had no way to cohesively process what she’d learned.
Then, Lawson enrolled in a Portland history docent’s program offered through the Portland History Collaborative, and all of the pieces fell into place.
“Prior to the docent training, I had a lot of historic information but no framework for putting (the historic facts) together,” said Lawson. “This program gave me a timeline and reference points for bringing all the pieces together. Now, when I walk around Portland, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the city’s rich heritage and how it has shaped the landscape that we see today.”
History aficionados seeking similar context are invited to attend the PHC’s 2014 Docent Training, set to begin Feb. 13.
Now in its 19th season, the program annually invites history lovers to come and learn about area landmarks and museums, along with a chance to share what they’ve learned with others as volunteer guides to the PHC’s sponsoring landmark sites that include: The Maine Historical Society (Wadsworth-Longfellow House), Victoria Mansion, Greater Portland Landmarks (Portland Observatory), The 5th Maine Regiment Museum, Spirits Alive at Eastern Cemetery, Tate House Museum and the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company & Museum.
The 11-week program features behind-the-scenes tours of historic sites and lectures on subjects like period architecture, art and the genealogies of city founders, that all interpret and lend context to the history of a place.
During the final sessions, docents are asked to select a PHC member property to volunteer for a one-year commitment, at a minimum of six hours per month.
To date, the program has trained more than 700 volunteer guides that support the ongoing work of affiliated historic organizations. No prior experience is necessary.
Jennifer Pollick, manager of education for Greater Portland Landmarks and the Portland Observatory, said guides at the observatory likely would talk about its importance as the nation’s last known marine signal tower, whose job was to signal ships coming into port using a flag code.
Pollick said each historic site has its own manual detailing its basic history. As guides become more familiar with the property, they are welcome to add to the historical narrative, based on areas of historic interest pertaining to the locale, such as its architecture or role in local history.
Docents also receive specialized training specific to the site where they volunteer.
“The highlight of our 30-minute tour, is getting to the top (of the 86-foot-tall observatory tower), where there is a 350-degree view of Portland and, on clear days, the White Mountains and Mt. Washington,” said Pollick, who heads a staff of some 40 volunteers there.
“This is a really fun program for anyone who enjoys learning about history, talking about history and meeting people from all over the world,” said Pollick.
HISTORY ON A MOVING TRAIN
Volunteers for the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad can opt to share about railroad history among the museum collections or deliver the narrative aboard a moving passenger train as it rolls down the tracks.
Christina Napoli, visitors’ services manager to the Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum and its education branch, said the docent program also connects volunteer guides to other areas of personal interest.
“Becoming a docent is the main focus of this program, but there are many more opportunities that open up for volunteers once they get their foot in the door,” said Napoli. “Docents here talk about the history and importance of the narrow gauge railroad in Maine and how much it contributed to the economy and development of the state in the mid-1800s. But they can go on to become part of our train crew or help to restore train cars.”
Lawson agreed, “This program has opened doors for a lot of other opportunities I never would have had before. . It’s been great fun.”
For Lawson, those outlets include conducting food history, walking and bus tours of Portland for out-of-state visitors.
“Everything this city has become is a direct result of something that happened in the past – the way the streets are laid out, the way the building codes are set up,” said Lawson. “Knowing those details changed the way I look at the city. This became a continuing story, not just a peek inside some old buildings. Portland is a fascinating city. You could spend your life studying this town and not discover everything.”
ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW TO LEARN
There is no recertification required for docents but many of them return for training because there is always something new to learn.
The classes meet from 9 a.m. to noon each Thursday from Feb. 13 through May 1 at the Maine Historical Society and each of the historic sites.
Tuition is $30 per person, or $20 for students with a valid student I.D.
There are spots available for up to 60 people.
Interested applicants should call 774-5561 Ext. 120 and leave a voice-mail, or email program coordinator Marjorie Getz at firstname.lastname@example.org.