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‘Cultural ambassadors’ make sure your visit, tours are top-notch

Frank Lloyd Wright House Studio docent ErSchettler is shown outside studio 931 Chicago Avenue Oak Park Ill. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Frank Lloyd Wright House and Studio docent Erin Schettler is shown outside the studio at 931 Chicago Avenue in Oak Park, Ill. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:29AM

Chicago is chock-full of world-class art and architecture that isn’t always appreciated to the fullest — or, in some cases, at all. That’s where trained volunteer docents (tour guides) come in. Every day these passionate, dedicated and learned folks — in effect, our city’s cultural ambassadors — help open minds and eyes to the beauty in our own backyard.

Docent: Tom Carmichael

Where: Chicago Architecture Foundation

How long: Five years

Total docents: Around 450 (roughly 90 of whom lead river cruises)

Training required: Initial training includes 11 weekly, full-day classroom sessions and approximately 20-25 hours per week of outside homework during those 11 weeks. Initial training culminates with two Loop walking tours. Additional training required to give other tours, such as the Architecture River Cruise, which requires five days in the classroom and on the boats, some lectures and 80-100 hours of homework (learning to identify and describe more than 100 buildings along the Chicago River). Docents-in-training also observe their more experienced colleagues in action and do practice sessions on boats. River cruise certification is granted when trainees are able to satisfactorily lead a cruise for two experienced docents.

More than three decades ago Tom Carmichael “temporarily” moved to Chicago after finishing his PhD in English literature (dissertation subject: Charles Dickens) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. While on the hunt for a teaching job, he joined the still-young Chicago Architecture Foundation.

But soon enough family and career became priorities, free time diminished and his affiliation dissolved.

That’s changed dramatically since 2007, when Carmichael — who with his wife ran a business that developed training programs for corporations — began winding things down professionally and searching for a pastime that “I would enjoy and find useful.”

Once again, he gravitated to the Architecture Foundation, where Carmichael — who’s now in charge of the organization’s river cruise docents — can often be spotted leading crowded jaunts down the Chicago River — sometimes with notables onboard. (The official, if onerous, name of said jaunts for booking purposes: “Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises.”)

On one memorable private excursion, he held forth for the king and queen of Norway. On another trip he hosted Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

Aside from the architectural component, Carmichael says he’s especially fond of the often-packed river cruises because it’s “one of the most ego-satisfying experiences that I’ve had in a long time.”

Carmichael laughs at the sentiment.

“Because invariably people come off the boat and say, ‘You were fabulous. This was great. I really enjoyed it. You did a wonderful job.’ And you get so much ego gratification right on the spot.”

He laughs again. “I come home and my head hardly fits through the door and my wife calms me down. ‘OK, you’re home now. You’re not the most important person in the world. Just sit down and eat your dinner.”

Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan, (312) 922-3432;

Docent: Lynn Goldman

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art

Total docents: 42

How long: Nearly 25 years

Training required: Two-month-long training program that meets weekly, observation of public tours, written assignment, “graduation” tour for peers and staff, three months of touring with a “docent mentor.”

Part of Lynn Goldman’s job involves helping people to overcome their fears. At the MCA, where Goldman gives two tours each month — and where she has worked as a docent since long before the museum opened at its current location on East Chicago Avenue in 1996 — those fears often manifest themselves in the form of disdain or at least dislike for works of art that don’t seem to fit the traditional definition of art.

“I always get comments like, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ or ‘My kid could do it.’ ‘My dog could do it.’ ‘My monkey could do it!’ says Goldman. But the average amount of time people look at a work of art is just seconds. And if you can slow them down and really ask them to look, you’d be really surprised at how many minds are opened — how many people say, ‘Hey, that’s really interesting. I see that. I feel that.’” A former college literature and poetry instructor, Goldman says her other trick of the trade is not to barrage folks with a slew of facts and figures. “I firmly believe that people remember what they’ve discovered themselves.”

Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, (312) 280-2660;

Docent: Marilyn Slattery

Where: Art Institute of Chicago

How long: 16 years

Total docents: 140-150

Training required: Three semesters (18 months) of training (including art history and teaching technique), six hours of class per week plus 12-15 hours per week of outside work, last semester spent in galleries with docent trainer, ongoing research papers and hour-long pre-tour classes.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, Marilyn Slattery began giving tours of the Loop and architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s Glessner House (on South Prairie) for the Chicago Architecture Foundation (until 1979 the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation). But she never was fond of the inclement weather or the city noise, and a career as a travel agent beckoned. So after five or six years Slattery eventually dropped out of the program.

“I thought, ‘If ever I’m a docent again, I don’t want to be outdoors,” the 72-year-old Northbrook resident says. The perfect location, it turned out, was Chicago’s Art Institute.

Slattery had visited and was familiar with the museum prior to submitting a docent application in the mid-90s, but she knew little about what sort of commitment her new volunteer gig would entail. She and her cohorts from the class of 1996 “feel like we went through boot camp together,” Slattery says. “This is sort of a priority in my life.”

More than sort of.

“Everything you do is planned around it,” she says. And absences are rare, even excused ones.

“A death, maybe,” Slattery says jokingly of what it takes to shirk one’s duties. “That might do it.”

Still, she and her colleagues (the vast majority of them women) feel privileged “to be kind of the heartbeat of a world-class art museum.” Interaction with their mostly-student tour groups is “rewarding” as well. “Not easy, necessarily, but rewarding,” Slattery says. Teens are the toughest, because they’re the most “self-conscious” and don’t chime in as readily. “We want the kids to [have] kind of a ‘wow’ experience when they come there, to feel that they’re part of the museum — that it’s their museum,” Slattery says. “A lot of people look at it as kind of elitist — adults too — but we want them to walk out of there and really feel like, ‘Oh, this is fun here… and we’d like to come back some day.’”

Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, (312) 443-3600;

Docent: Candy King

Where: Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center (Skokie)

How long: 3 ½ years

Total docents: 120

Training required: two-weeks of intensive historical and pedagogical lessons, journal assignments, several hundred pages of readings, attendance at lectures by international Holocaust scholars, extra sessions on pedagogy and best practices, observing and shadowing trained docents in the exhibits.

Some of Candy King’s relatives lived through and died in the Holocaust, but she says no one ever talked about that horrific period in history at family gatherings. So when the retired teacher and computer programmer saw a newspaper ad seeking volunteer docents for the then unfinished Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, she jumped at the chance to immerse herself in the subject and teach others about it.

“I almost never bring my own family history into it,” says King, 65. “I think I’m basically a teacher at heart.” However, she notes, “we don’t’ share the history as much as get [people] to [arrive at] certain conclusions on their own. If you throw a bunch of facts figures at kids” — who comprise most of her groups and, depending on age, are restricted to kid-friendly portions of the museum —“they’re not going to get it. They’re going to glaze over in a few minutes.”

What works best, King says, is applying Holocaust lessons to the problems of daily life — whether bullying or something else. “There’s a theme at the museum — the power of one. That one person can make a difference.”

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie, (847) 967-4800;

Docent: Erin Schettler

Where: Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust

How long: Five years

Total docents: 250 at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 70 at Robie House and 20 at the Rookery (in the Loop).

Training required: Two-week intensive training course on Frank Lloyd Wright and the specific venue where tours will be given, mentoring period with an experienced “interpreter” during which interpreter-in-training also gives tours, practice tour in with a staff member prior to certification.

Meeting new people and interacting with other volunteers are two of the perks that keep Erin Schettler, a software program manager from Elmwood Park, volunteering as a guide with the Frank Lloyd Preservation Trust. She’s been at it for five years, with no end in site.

And, no, she never thinks about not getting paid. In fact, Schettler says, these days she’s more involved than ever, with a schedule that includes leading annual “Wright Plus” tours that feature excursions through a handful of private Wright-designed and Wright-influenced homes in Oak Park. And since she and her fellow guides are allowed to mold their own tour scripts to some degree (as long as they cover certain points — and get all the key dates correct), Schettler, 38, focuses in part on nature and family — “how it was to live 120 years ago in the area, which was mostly prairie.”

“There are days when you’re supposed to go and volunteer and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I have so many other things to do,’” she says. “And then you go and you spend four hours [volunteering] and you leave, going, ‘I’m so refreshed and glad I did that.’”

Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, 951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park, (312) 994-4000;

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