Docent, in a Word

Scientist Luca Zaggia leading our Ecology of Venice walk.
Scientist Luca Zaggia leading our Ecology of Venice walk.

Why Do We Call Them Docents?

Here’s something we hear all the time:

 “Why do you call your guides ‘docents?’ A docent is a volunteer at a museum.”

 Or, “what is a docent, anyway. That term isn’t used in England or Australia.”

 People want a guide. Why do we stubbornly insist on calling them docents?

Historian Jackie Burns leading a walk in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.


First, here’s a little context. The term docent comes from the Latin docere, which means to teach. In American English, the term is often applied to a museum volunteer who leads gallery tours. In Italian and Spanish (docente) and in German (dozent) the word is still used to refer to a university lecturer.

While a professor may be a great thinker and researcher, a docent is a master teacher. She is someone who has the ability—the gift, in fact—for communicating a concept in such a way that brings the layperson on an intellectual journey. Context docents are these kinds of people. They are natural teachers and storytellers. They may also be wonderful researchers and book writers and intellectuals. But the skill they hone with Context is teaching in a captivating way.

Docents workshopping our Rijksmuseum walk in Amsterdam.
Docents workshopping our Rijksmuseum walk in Amsterdam.

There are other key qualities that constitute a Context docent. For example, he is local. Sometimes hyperlocal. Take Jakub Cechvala. An historian in his early 30s, Jakub was 10 years old when the Velvet Revolution took place. When he leads our From Iron Curtain to Velvet Revolution walk, he weaves his own family’s story into the narrative.

A docent is a nerd. She lives and breathes her subject. If you invite Rome-based art historian Lauren Golden out for pizza and a beer, chances are that the evening will be spent discussing Raphael, divinity in architecture and “neuroarthistory.”

A docent is inspirational. Here’s a common story: A family takes a tour of London with historian Caroline Barron. Their teenage children are electrified. And, on the plane ride home tell their parents that when they grow up they plan to become historians, too.

Food expert Daniel Milne sharing the delicacies of the Nishiki Market in Kyoto.  Photo courtesy of misadventureswithandi
Food expert Daniel Milne sharing the delicacies of the Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
Photo courtesy of misadventureswithandi

A docent is the consummate host, “a gracious and gregarious host who lives and breathes his city,” as a client recently wrote after taking our Beyond Feta walk in Athens with chef and architect Nikitas Patiniotis.

A docent is big picture. She relishes the detail, but is always drawn to the larger story. A perfect example is Anna Greenspan, philosophy professor at NYU’s Shanghai campus who leads our Accelerated City tour. What looks like a skyscraper to you or I becomes a blueprint for the future through Anna’s eyes.

Archeologist Lawrence Owen leading a family walk in the British Museum.
Archeologist Lawrence Owen leading a family walk in the British Museum.

Most of all, a Context Docent is the best teacher you ever had. Someone who has the skills and knowledge to take you on a deeper intellectual and emotional journey as you broaden yourself through travel.

So, yes, it’s an obscure word. Life might be easier (and less wordy) for us if we just called them guides. But, as you can see, that would be highly inaccurate.



  1. Bonjour,

    and thanks for the explanation – actually I would like to suggest this is a very good idea to call them docents and not guides. Because you could be a docent in a different way than just guiding in the traditional way. At our cooking school (Le Foodist) in Paris we actually pride ourselves for doing exactly what you describe above. And yet, I am talking about chefs – chefs with an abnormal talent for teaching and not just cooking …

  2. This post is NOT coming from the foto that came up when I tried to post….I’m her daughter, and both of the two GUIDES who’ve commented here know me…I’m Jean Feilmoser, and I’m also a professional certified guide, and a native San Franciscan. We’re a rare breed, actually, and I tell a different story about my town that no one who’s moved here from somewhere else, or learned all their info from books to deliver. I’ve lived it my entire life. I too am a GUIDE. I totally agree with Matthew about how ‘guides’ are not given the respect for the job they actually do which is to educate as well as enlighten, AND entertain our audiences so they go home with a memorable experience. We read our groups, and evolve our knowledgable commentary in a way they can understand, accept and apply the info to their experience of our cities.

    So perhaps as you say, the word GUIDE may be ‘highly inaccurate’ to YOU, but then consider that we are perhaps, EDUCATORS, ENLIGHTENERS, ENTERTAINERS, CONCIERGES, AMBASSADORS.

    i also drove a taxi in this city for 35 years to fill the gaps of no tour work. I’ve got a PHD in ‘Streetology’. I drove the arteries, streets of my city living it and breathing it, seeing it evolve, change from the trenches. You don’t consider that another perspecive / field of ‘expertise’? Thanks to U__r & L__t…..(I don’t want to promote them by actually spelling their proper names), I can no longer pursue that ‘fill-in’ profession, (You know, now famous actors may have poured your coffee in a diner before they became famous….because they had a fall back fill-in job to pay the bills. ) because these INTERLOPERS, have decimated a centuries old REAL profession.

    When you want to come to San Francisco, a city full of immigrants and people who’ve fallen off the face of the earth in search of who they are….and they came here to find themselves…and did….then come experience a REAL San Franciscan, as I said a dying breed….but someone who has lived, breathed, been shaped by a world class city unlike any other in the USofA. Think about it. I’m also a founder of the National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations USA, a past President of the NFTGA, and a 2 x past president of the San Francisco Tour Guide Guild.

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