When Mary Helen Crowe was a graduate student at North Carolina State studying toxicology, she would ride her bicycle to the North Carolina Museum of Art for a break from the lab. Her love of art began there and continued to provide a welcome respite from her job as a pharmacist. Years later after she moved to Birmingham, she began volunteering at the BMA in 1996 for The First Emperor, an exhibition of Xi’an of Qin terra-cotta warriors from ancient China, which was organized by the Museum and traveled nationally. The exhibition drew 125,000 visitors, so volunteers were very busy collecting tickets and handing out audio guides.
In 2008, Mary Helen became a BMA docent after she was encouraged by a friend and fellow docent who knew she would love it. Nine years later, she still enjoys learning about art and art history at docent lectures by Museum curators, staff, and art historians. She has also made many friends through the program and loves that the BMA brings together a unique group of people who are fun and interesting.
Mary Helen has found ways to marry her love of art and medical science through the docent program. One of her favorite tours to give is the Visually Impaired Program tour. Docents are specially trained to lead this tour for visually impaired visitors by using verbal descriptions and allowing them to touch tactile representations of artworks. She also enjoys giving tours to medical students in the Art in Medicine class from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This class visits the Museum every year to practice looking closely at artwork, as research has shown it can improve clinical observation skills.
In November 2016, Mary Helen continued to challenge herself as a docent by attending Museum Hack Boot Camp along with Angela May and Lindsey Hammel from the BMA Education Department. Museum Hack has gained national attention for leading unconventional tours in major museums around the country and holds trainings for museum professionals on their techniques. During the rigorous three-day boot camp held at the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary Helen learned to lead tours with engaging storytelling, fun gallery games and activities, and other hacks to help visitors connect with art objects. She especially enjoyed that Museum Hack helped her learn to push the viewer to perceive art in the moment, think about their own reaction to it, and make a connection, instead of just considering its historical context. One of her favorite aspects of Museum Hack Boot Camp was meeting the other participants who were various museum staff and consultants from Washington, D.C., Canada, Colombia, and Holland, among other places. We recently invited Museum Hack to lead docent training at the Museum and Mary Helen loved working with them to create hacks specifically for the BMA.
The Museum is lucky to have docents like Mary Helen who not only volunteer their time, but also enjoy challenging themselves and working to create meaningful experiences for our visitors. Thank you, Mary Helen!