Behind the Scenes, Education, Getty Center, Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty Museum

Let Me Tell You a Story: Docent Tours That Entertain and Educate

If you’re planning to visit the Getty this holiday, you may be surprised to learn that we have no tour guides. Instead, we have engineers, film producers, social workers, photographers, teachers, doctors, artists, salespeople, landscapers, and just about every other profession you can name.

These are Getty docents, spirited volunteers who in their roles as educators draw on their individual experiences to create original, one-of-a-kind tours that introduce over 170,000 of our visitors each year to the architecture and gardens of the Getty Center and the Getty Villa.

Docent George Terrell at the Getty Center

Docent George Terrell under the row of crape myrtles and lavender outside the Museum entrance at the Getty Center

Each docent creates a unique theme to serve as the core of his or her tour—which means you’ll be treated to a fresh perspective each time you visit. How does Richard Meier use light as a building material? Why is the Getty Center like an island in the sky? How would we read the Getty Villa if it were a book titled Ancient Romans and Their Extravagant Lifestyles?

This creative slant is supported by Sue Denness, head of the docent program. “I have a somewhat different approach to touring than what’s found at many museums,” she told me. Yes, it’s essential to know the material and be accurate. “But I don’t believe in ‘canned’ talks. I encourage docents’ individual styles. This makes it challenging and fulfilling for docents and visitors alike.”

Docent Catherine Brackey giving a tour at the Getty Villa

Docent Catherine Brackey discusses the mosaic-and-shell fountain in the East Garden at the Getty Villa

“You’re encouraged to bring who you are to your tour,” agrees Sean Fox, a professional photographer who leads garden tours at the Center on Sundays. When he joined the program four years ago, Sean took 60 photos of Robert Irwin’s Central Garden and storyboarded his entire tour, step by step, visual by visual.

Pierre Escaron, a retired engineer with a philosophical bent, takes a very different approach to the same garden. “I love Robert Irwin’s writings,” he enthusiastically explained to me, “so my tour is two-thirds Irwin, one-third garden.”

Margaret Smith, a former teacher, has been telling stories—at the “old Getty,” then the Center, and now back at the Villa—for 30 years. (“I was ten when I started,” she joked.) Margaret has loved the ancient world since she spent her junior year abroad in Rome. If you visit the Villa with her, you’ll catch her enthusiasm as you explore what parts of a Roman villa were public, which parts private, and why.

Besides being great storytellers, Margaret, Pierre, Sean, and all Getty docents are amazingly dedicated. More than 103 have worked here for a decade or more, and fully a third give more hours than the program asks of them. As a new docent 29 years ago, Margaret calmly completed her shift despite labor pains. Now that’s dedication—and a good story, too!

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      From you have I been absent in the spring,
      When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
      Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
      That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
      Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
      Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
      Could make me any summer’s story tell,
      Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
      Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
      Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
      They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
      Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
      Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
      As with your shadow I with these did play.

      —William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564

      Vase of Flowers (detail), 1722, Jan van Huysum. The J. Paul Getty Museum


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