Box for writing equipment (suzuribako)

Box for writing equipment (suzuribako); Japan, Edo period, fl. 17th century; lacquer, gold, silver, wood; silvered metal water dropper and stone; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1944.22a–k

Volunteer Month: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In 1981, I read in the Washington Post’s “Ann’s Reader Exchange” that the Freer Gallery of Art was looking for volunteers to join the museum’s first docent class. I immediately volunteered. I’ve always loved the Freer, and having just been inspired by a great docent-led tour I took in San Francisco, I thought it would be fun to give it a try. Little did I know how this decision would change my life.

I don’t think any of us had an idea of what to expect when we joined that first docent class. We came from all walks of life, such as a retired Foreign Service Officer, a former Peace Corps volunteer, an accountant, a collector of Japanese pottery, and me—a production manager. As we threw ourselves into the program’s intensive training, we soon turned from a band of strangers into a close-knit group. Over the years, as the Freer became the Freer|Sackler, our small circle expanded exponentially. No matter the size of the group, though, there’s always been that same sense of camaraderie we felt at the beginning, and it’s one of the things I love about being a docent.

Martha Bari's name tags through the years
Martha Bari’s name tags through the years

I’ve also never lost the pleasure of being a docent at the Freer|Sackler. First and foremost, my joy lies in the art, which casts its spell on anyone who pauses to look. I’ve pored over a web of crackled glaze magically tracing the contours of a Chinese vase, lost myself in a beautiful Japanese lacquer box sprinkled with gold “like the skin of a pear,” and marveled at the skill of an Indian sculptor who carved such a diaphanous gown that Buddha’s body is clearly visible underneath. After thirty years of showing visitors the glorious Peacock Room, I’m still finding details I never saw before. What a privilege to share this art with visitors every week!

Some years after I started in the program, I realized that although I’d achieved professional success, I was happiest on the weekends giving tours. My docent experiences made me yearn for the luxury of a classroom where my time spent with a group could expand from an hour-long tour into an entire semester. I wanted to be that special professor who makes a difference in someone’s life, so I decided to enroll in graduate school. My dream eventually came true, and now I teach art history for a living.

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Three of Martha’s favorite objects

So, why do I continue to give tours? A key factor is the huge gratification I get from sharing my enthusiasm for Asian art with the public. There’s no greater reward for volunteering than having someone who indifferently walks into the building suddenly discover the thrill of close looking. I feel that I owe so much to the Freer|Sackler for all that has come my way through being a docent, so I feel privileged to act as a goodwill ambassador for the museums through my tours. Finally, I treasure the strong bonds that I’ve formed with my fellow docents, some of whom are now my closest friends. I cherish our common bond as art lovers and look forward to our conversations about tour strategies or the latest exhibitions.

Obviously, my life is fully entwined with the Freer|Sackler docent program. To leave it is as unthinkable as walking away from my family, so I look forward to doing this for a long, long time.

Martha Bari

Martha Bari is a longtime volunteer at the Freer|Sackler.

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