Museum prepares for April opening with docent orientation

From Staff Reports

Volunteers are quintessential to the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, which will reopen for the season on Saturday, April 14 with a special temporary exhibition entitled, Black Mountain College and Black Mountain, NC: When “Town” Meets “Gown,” which seeks to dispel the myth that the college rarely interacted with the surrounding community. The exhibit will feature stories from students and local residents about their experience with the college as well as historic objects, audio/visual elements, and a large geodesic dome.

In preparation for the opening, museum staff are recruiting new volunteer docents to serve three-and-a-half-hour shifts during the museum’s opening hours, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center director Anne Chesky Smith addresses docents in a past orientation.

Those interesting in becoming volunteer docents as well as returning docents are encouraged to attend a meet and greet docent orientation at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 29 at the museum.

As a non-profit organization, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center relies on the hard work of its volunteers to remain open during its season from April to December each year. Volunteer docents provide frontline guest services at the museum during their shift, aided by museum staff members. Docents greet visitors, run the gift shop, provide information about museum exhibits, and more. Each new docent receives on-the-job training during their first shift.

Docents are especially important now as the museum is experiencing a period of growth after a major renovation in 2016. Located in Black Mountain’s historic firehouse, built in 1921 by Richard Sharp Smith, the museum has increased its capacity for exhibit space, added public restrooms, and restored the building back to Smith’s original vision – and seen an almost 100% increase in visitation since.

Also, on April 14, the museum’s second floor gallery exhibition, Pathways from the Past, will reopen. The exhibit leads visitors through the history of the Swannanoa Valley from the time of Native Americans beginning more than 3,000 years ago to the 1960s. With the help of a grant from the Black Mountain Kiwanis Club, the exhibit has been revamped to include several “Hands on History” stations where children of all ages can discover the past in a hands-on way. Stations include an archaeological excavation box, where guests can uncover ancient arrowheads and pot sherds; a gossip bench with a rotary telephone; a vintage desk and typewriter; and a working model train.

Docents are also able to participate in volunteer field trips arranged by museum staff to visit places they otherwise would not be able to. Past field trips have included – a behind-the-scenes tour of the archives at the Biltmore Estate, the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig at Joara in Morganton, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville.

Volunteering at the museum can be an enriching experience for those who are longtime residents of Buncombe County and those who are just getting settled in the area. Museum treasurer and native New Yorker Yolanda Smith began volunteering at the museum 22 years ago. In that time, she says, “I’ve learned about the history of the valley and met a lot of interesting people from all over the world.” 

Fellow volunteer, Barbara Reed has been living in the area for more than 50 years. When asked why she enjoys working as a docent, she responded, “I enjoy being a docent because I like meeting people.  I like sharing my knowledge of the Swannanoa Valley and making it interesting to those who come to visit.  I hope they go away with a new appreciation for our Valley.”

The “Meet and Greet” orientation will be a time for existing volunteers to meet with one another and fellowship, review procedures, sign up for shifts, and share feedback with museum staff. Those who are newly interested in serving as a docent will have the opportunity to learn from existing volunteers and are invited to stay for an extended tour of the galleries for more in depth overview of what it means to be a docent. No experience is necessary.

The event will take place at the museum located at 223 West State Street in downtown Black Mountain. Museum staff will provide light refreshments including coffee, tea, and doughnuts. Attendance is not required to become a volunteer and interested candidates are encouraged to contact the museum directly. For more information, please contact the museum’s assistant director and volunteer coordinator, Katherine Cutshall at or (828)-669-9566.