Docent Adventures

As a museum docent, the vast majority of my experiences and interactions with guests and visitors are positive. I’ve had very few experiences–exceedingly few, in fact–that I would categorize as genuinely negative. I’m grateful for that.

Some interactions with guests and visitors are particularly memorable. Kids often say the most delightful and humorous things, but adults certainly pitch in, too. In this space I would like to share some memorable experiences I and my fellow docents have had with guests and visitors over the years.

What follows is in no particular order, just random memories of museum interactions. Please know that there is no exaggeration or embellishment in the following stories, and that every single one is true. Read and enjoy!

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To begin, perhaps my favorite encounter was a young girl looking at our diorama at the Field that shows an embalmers’ workshop from around 1,000 BCE. One pair of embalmers is shown pulling the intestines out of the body of a deceased man. This girl said in a rather loud voice, “Look, mommy, they’re pulling out his intesticles!” Naturally everyone within earshot broke out in laughter.

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I also vividly remember the most embarrassing question ever asked of me. At least, I was left quite embarrassed. One of our Books of the Dead is partially translated into English, and the translation is for the forty-two lines of the Declaration of Innocence (often called the Negative Confession). A Japanese woman was there with her two little boys, the older of whom was probably eight or nine years of age. He had a question about one of the “confessions” and his mother directed him to me. The boy asked me, “What does ‘fornicate’ mean?”

This Book of the Dead belonged to a temple chantress named Isty, so it’s only natural that several “confessions” involved proper behavior in the sacred temple setting. The line about which the boy was curious simply reads: “I did not fornicate.” Yes, a simple enough line and understandable in context, but the kid completely caught me off guard with his question. The mother explained that English was not her native language and she herself didn’t know the answer, so I warned her the answer would be of an “adult” nature. She didn’t mind. I explained it in the best and most innocuous Candy-Land way one could to an eight year old, and he merely nodded, shrugged, and walked off. I don’t know if he really understood, but I think my face was red for the next hour.

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I do a fair bit of eavesdropping as a docent. I consider it part of my job description. I listen in on people as they talk about an artifact, or on a parent who’s trying to explain something to his or her kids. It helps me to gain a better understanding of what the average person actually knows about ancient Egypt. One large display case at the Field shows sections of wall reliefs from the tomb of Bakenrenef, vizier to Pharaoh Psamtik I at the start of Dynasty 26. The signage uses the term “Prime Minister” for Bakenrenef, and I was listening in on a woman who was clearly having a hard time understanding this title as she was trying to explain it to her two young daughters. She finally said to them, “Look, kids, this man was a preacher.”

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A dear friend of mine is another docent named Evelyn. She’s a very intelligent and funny woman and has a special gift for facilitating in the exhibit at the Field and for bringing ancient Egypt to life for the visitors. She told me once of a woman she came across in the mummy room many years ago. This woman appeared disconcerted as she was looking at the mummies, so Evelyn asked her, “Are there any questions I can answer for you?” The woman responded, “No, but I think all of these mummies should be taken out of these cases and given a good Christian burial!”

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Evelyn was once giving a tour to a group of school kids and their teacher. She paused before a large map of the African continent so she could acquaint the school group with Egypt’s location, and the teacher asked if she could say something. Evelyn stepped aside to allow the teacher to take over, and this young woman pointed to the center of Africa and said to her kids: “Look, children, this is where my family comes from: Czechoslovakia!” This was a teacher, mind you.

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Returning to the subject of Christianity, it’s not uncommon to meet very religious and devout visitors at the museum. Another good friend of mine is Mary Jo. She and I often work together when facilitating in the exhibit. I wasn’t present at the time she met a family and proceeded to describe a mummy named Harwa to them. She gave the usual facts about this man, such as he was a door keeper at the Temple of Amun and lived around 2,600 years ago.

A young girl in the family said, “So he lived in the first year.” The mom and dad nodded and said, “Yes, around the time of the first year.” Mary Jo was confused so she asked them what they meant by “first year.” They explained that this man, Harwa, lived during the first year after the creation of the world. They believed the world was only around 2,700 years old. That’s quite a bit off from the 4004 years most creationists believe the world has been around, but from my own experience creationists don’t seem to have a consensus on this. Whatever’s convenient, I guess.

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I spend a fair amount of time talking about Harwa, myself. He is a particularly well-preserved mummy who stands close to the glass, his head having been unwrapped 100 or more years ago. His face is striking. I like to announce his title of “door keeper in the temple of Amun” and to explain what we know about this high-status title, but I was always curious why some kids listening in would break out laughing when I mentioned his title. One kid was kind enough to explain that it sounded like I was saying “dork-keeper.” I have tried to enunciate better since this was brought to my attention.

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For a long time after the film Night at the Museum came out, many people, kids and adults alike, asked us docents if it had been filmed at the Field Museum. It wasn’t, of course, but a movie that was filmed largely in the Field Museum was released in 1997 and starred Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller. It was an adaptation of the novel by the same name, The Relic, written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, two of my own favorite authors.

Certain scenes in the movie involve the old coal tunnels deep below the museum and the surrounding area, and those tunnels do indeed exist. For a long time after the film came out visitors were asking if they could have a tour of the old tunnels. They were not allowed to, of course. This was before I became a docent at the Field, but my former boss and good friend, Bob, was on the staff there for over thirty years. One day he decided to give himself a tour of these tunnels, so off he went.

Bob is one of the best story tellers you could ever meet, and I wish I could write this as entertainingly as he tells it, but such is not possible. He swears he will never return to the tunnels. The tunnels are pretty dark and murky, and when Bob was down there, he observed that the stone walls and ceilings seemed to be moving in spots. It was too late before he realized they were crawling with big, beefy cockroaches, and many of them fell into his hair as he was running back to the entrance. He told me he was screaming the whole time in an incredibly high-pitched tone that was probably upsetting dogs for several blocks in all directions.

Bob is a good example of how the Field Museum gets in your blood. Although he retired some years ago, he’s now a docent and spends a couple of days a week there. We are extremely fortunate to have him at the Field, and I’m blessed to call him friend.

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We docents figure some of the cabbies in Chicago aren’t terribly bright. About eight miles down the road is the Museum of Science and Industry, and two of the most popular exhibits there are the German U-boat captured during WWII and a replica coal mine. Any docent who has worked at the Field Museum for any length of time has been asked at least once by visitors where in the Field they can find the submarine or coal mine. They seem ashen-faced when we tell them they’re at the wrong museum. I can just picture them wanting to find the cabbie who dropped them off at the Field by mistake, and throttle him.

However, the most common question of all is, “Where’s the bathroom?” We Egyptian docents call it the Temple of Relief.

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Kids more than anyone ask unusual questions about mummies. For many kids who come to the museum, it’s the first time they’ve seen a mummy, if not the first time they’ve seen a dead body. I imagine it’s tricky for them to process. I’m often asked what a mummy feels like. I’ve never touched one, but based on how these bodies were preserved in ancient times, there’s a ready comparison: beef jerky. I enjoy people’s expressions when I say that. A number of times through the years I’ve been asked what the embalmers did with the male’s private parts in the mummification process. Not surprisingly, the people who’ve asked me this have always been boys, most of whom are approaching adolescence. Ancient Egyptian embalmers did on occasion pay particular attention to the male genitalia, up to and including fastening a rod against the penis to make it seem erect, but this is one question I’m generally good at dodging–or answering in very vague terms, at least.

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People are often confused by the signage accompanying display cases. Sometimes the information includes acquisition information. An acquaintance told me of one young couple he overheard at a display case containing ancient Egyptian relics where the signage included “Felton Bequest, 1940.” The young woman commented, “I thought it would have been older than that.” More common is the confusion created over the accession number accompanying each artifact. In other words, this is nothing more than each particular relic’s museum serial number. But all the time I hear people of all ages mistaking the number for the age of the artifact, even though one ought to know, for example, that a coffin is not 330080 years old.

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A friend told me of a trip she once took to the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam. She observed a man and woman on the grounds, and the woman was trying to take photographs. Her husband noticed something odd–he ever so patiently took the camera out of his wife’s hands, turned it around 180 degrees, and said: “No, dear, point it this way”.

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Earlier I mentioned my friend Mary Jo’s experience with the mummy Harwa and a family of creationists. The fact is, many of us docents have had many experiences with creationists, bible scientists, or however one might wish to describe them. A fellow docent named Grace once told me about her finding religious pamphlets left behind all over the place, inside the exhibits–free advertising, I suppose. More than once a creationist has asked me, rather angrily, why the Field Museum has no exhibit on creationism. Once a pair of very nice young men approached me in the Egyptian exhibit and asked if I had found Jesus and if I might like to pray with them. If I come across these people in the Egyptian exhibit, you can only imagine what the docents encounter who work in our Evolving Planet exhibit.

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I have no children of my own so it’s a special pleasure to meet so many lovely families and the kids in those families. It never ceases to amuse me the things kids will say, including things of no relevance to the exhibit. There was the young boy who started laughing for reasons I didn’t understand, although his mom seem mortified. The kid looked at me proudly and exclaimed, “I farted!” His mother looked even more mortified.

As any parent knows, you have to be careful about what you say around young kids. It will come back to haunt you. More than a few kids have blurted out their moms’ ages to me, much to their moms’ chagrin. One kid noted that his mom is fat–she had mentioned that about herself earlier that day, so I guess it was worth it for the kid to share. And then there was the kid who explained to me that when his mom drank too many beers, she got drunk. Well, that seemed perfectly logical to me, but his mom didn’t seem terribly impressed.

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One of the greatest pleasures of being a docent at the Field and the O.I. is the great variety of people you get to meet. I encounter people from all over the world, from every walk of life, from every religion and ethnicity. In this respect I often become the student, and I eagerly drink up what people can teach me about their cultures. I also discover that no matter where you come from, all of us humans are basically the same at heart. I once met an Iraqi Christian woman and her little girl, who was probably around nine. I found it fascinating that they spoke Aramaic in their masses–the language Jesus spoke. Yet the little girl reminded me of myself at that age because she told me quite frankly: “I don’t like going to church!”
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I was talking to a kid about what we can know and cannot know about certain aspects of ancient history. This was a boy of about seven, and he seemed to catch on to what I was saying. He replied, “Well, we’d need a time machine to know all of that.” This is something I often say so I replied, “You’re a smart young man. Maybe some day you’ll invent a time machine for us.” The boy stated: “I’m not smart because I don’t know pi.” I don’t know about that. I rather doubt when I was seven I would’ve even known anything about pi to comment on it. To me, it was nothing more than something you eat.
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My friend Mary Jo was talking to a young girl who had a true zeal for ancient Egypt. This girl fired question after question at Mary Jo, and she patiently and enthusiastically answered every one. Mary Jo knew when the little girl had had her fill of discussion when she said good-naturedly, “You hurt my brain.” Now, that’s a compliment to a docent!
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Mary Jo and I recently met a six-year-old boy named Noah. As with the little girl in the previous story, he had real enthusiasm for ancient Egypt. In his case this was largely due to a Goosebumps story he and his grandma had recently read together. Noah was breathless as he explained the adventures the boy in the story had had in Egypt, in a secret pyramid chamber. I was later able to learn that this book is the Goosebumps edition called The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. If there’s one thing we docents love, it’s to meet kids who have real love for reading. It’s such a precious gift. Things like Goosebumps and Rick Riordan’s Greek and Egyptian adventures bring history to life for kids, and that’s a wonderful thing.

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One of the impressive artifacts in our exhibit is a marble sarcophagus of Greek design which weighs in excess of six tons. It dates probably to the first century CE. Many Greeks lived and died in Egypt in the later centuries, so it’s not surprising to see ancient Greek material culture in an Egyptian exhibit.

Dead center on one of the long sides is an elaborate carving of the face of Medusa, complete with snakes for hair. She’s on there as a protective figure to ward off tomb robbers and other dangers to the deceased occupant.  Not long ago I happened by to see a group of Cub Scouts sitting on the floor along the elaborately carved long side; their moms were standing behind. While talking with the moms I glanced down and noticed one of the boys was kissing Medusa right on her cheek. This is now my favorite memory of the sarcophagus. Not being a parent I can’t understand why a boy would do this, but other parents and kids I’ve since met have suggested he did it on a dare. Makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder what booger-fingered little tyke might have touched Medusa’s cheek before this boy innocently kissed it.

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I was talking in the gallery to a boy eight years of age. Whenever I meet a young man that age, I like to tell them they’re the same age as Tut was when he became king of Egypt 3,300 years ago. I then go into all the power and wealth and privilege he would have as an eight-year-old pharaoh of a superpower, during which time the average kid gets all excited by the mere thought of it. But I always end with: “And…you’d be married!” This usually disgusts them in a delightful way. But this time, when I said it to this boy, he exclaimed while pointing down to his groin: “I can’t be married. My private parts don’t work yet!”

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I was with a young family looking at a bronze statuette of a goddess with a lion’s head and a woman’s body (very typical ancient Egyptian). A little boy in the group leaned way in to loo closer, started rubbing his chest, and exclaimed: “She has boobs!” His mom was mortified.

 

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