Jeff Jardine

Great Valley Museum looking for dozen or so docents

Great Valley Museum docent Mike Clarke is pictured Monday morning with an exhibit of Tule Elk in Modesto. The new center on the MJC west campus is drawing tour requests from schools so they are looking to recruit and train as many docents as they can find to work with the students.
Great Valley Museum docent Mike Clarke is pictured Monday morning with an exhibit of Tule Elk in Modesto. The new center on the MJC west campus is drawing tour requests from schools so they are looking to recruit and train as many docents as they can find to work with the students. jlee@modbee.com

The Great Valley Museum opened in its spacious new digs on Modesto Junior College’s West Campus last spring as the 2014-15 school year began to wind down, taking the seasonal student tour traffic with it.

As shakedown cruises go, the museum’s timing was actually very good. The museum showcases the Valley’s landscapes, ecosystem and the critters that inhabit it. Many of the exhibits were – and still are – being assembled.

With the expanded size of the new facility comes the ability to keep it open more hours, and larger groups can tour it. All of which makes busy men out of Arnold Chavez, the museum’s interim director, and Mike Clarke, a docent. Why?

To meet the museum’s growing needs, they must recruit and train dozens of new docents who in a relatively short time will learn enough about the exhibits to give guided tours to schoolchildren and other visitors.

Already, the museum has a roster of about two dozen docents who volunteered when the museum called a much smaller building next to the college’s east campus home. Basically, Chavez said, they’ll need twice as many docents as before, and it’s not as easy as it might seem. There is competition. McHenry Museum and McHenry Mansion in Modesto, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown and Columbia State Historic Park are among the venues also perpetually looking to recruit docents. Same goes for a multitude of nonprofit charities that rely on volunteerism.

More than half of Great Valley Museum’s current docents are retired teachers used to working with groups and unafraid to speak in public. And many of them taught or have a love for science. It certainly helps, Clarke said, but isn’t a prerequisite. In fact, the volunteer positions are open to anyone with an interest in the Valley and the museum.

“We’ll provide the scientific background and teach them the definitions,” Clarke said.

The best piece of advice he’ll give them?

“Don’t make anything up,” he said. “If you don’t know, tell ’em. We don’t give lectures. We get (visitors) to interact.”

There is much to see during the tours, which last about 45 minutes and are catered to groups ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens. They’ll gain an understanding of life in the Valley where water is and isn’t, including the freshwater marshes and alkali soils. They’ll learn about the behavior of animals in the wild and particularly their defense mechanisms (see skunks).

They’ll learn factoids that explain why the saber-toothed tiger’s skeleton is so dark after being recovered from Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, and why the remains from only one human have ever been discovered there. (I’ll leave it to the docents to explain that.)

The docent training will be ongoing, Clarke said, if only because some of the museum’s exhibits are still being developed and constructed.

“It’s a work in progress,” he called it. “Every time I come in here (which is nearly every day), I check to see if there’s anything new.”

Docents will also learn to explain the Science on a Sphere exhibit that gets live feeds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to explain the geography of the Earth, moon and Mars, along with so-called “earthquake weather” and other weather patterns on Earth.

The museum also offers some paid positions through its Traveling Teachers program overseen for many years by Molly Flemate. Traveling Teachers take the museum to the public with presentations ranging from animal adventures to how Native American cultures respected nature. Oh, yeah – and don’t forget the popular squid dissection sessions.

They have six teachers on board now, with many more needed. The program gets about 600 requests for presentations each year.

“We’re in desperate need,” she said.

And, like Clarke, hoping for a large and eager recruiting class.

At a glance

The Great Valley Museum is located in the new Science Community Museum building on MJC’s West Campus, along Blue Gum Avenue west of Highway 99. The museum is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Anyone interested in becoming a docent can contact Arnold Chavez at 209-548-5773 or chaveza@mjc.edu or Mike Clarke at 209-543-0709 or clrksville@att.net.

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