Museum hosts volunteer orientation before April 8 opening


Volunteers are essential to the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, which will reopen for the season on Saturday, April 8 with a special temporary exhibition, “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great American Spaces.”

In preparation for the opening, the museum is recruiting new volunteer docents to serve 3.5 hour shifts during the museum’s opening hours. The museum will host an orientation for new and returning docents on Thursday, March 30 at 10:30 a.m.

Swannanoa Valley Museum docents pose for a photograph after a tour of the Biltmore Estate archives in 2016. Behind-the-scenes field trips are one of the perks of serving as a volunteer docent.

Completed over the winter after the museum’s extensive renovation, the museum’s second-floor exhibit “Pathways from the Past” showcases its permanent collection that ranges from Native American artifacts through mid-century memorabilia.

The building itself is historic. Formerly Black Mountain’s historic fire house, it was designed in 1921 by Richard Sharp Smith, the Biltmore Estate’s supervising architect. The 2016 renovation was an effort to stabilize the building, bring it back to Smith’s original design and add features like climate control and public restrooms.

“Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great American Spaces” addresses the life and works of internationally-renowned architect Rafael Guastavino. The new, temporary Guastavino exhibition was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and originally designed for the Boston Public Library. It was also mounted in New York City and Washington, D.C. before being donated to Christmount Conference Center in Black Mountain.

It was on the grounds of the present-day conference center that Guastavino built his retirement home in 1895. His house, known locally as the “Spanish Castle,” was a ramshackle three-story whitewashed wooden house with a central bell tower. Through grander than local farmhouses, the house did not exhibit the cohesive construction technology that made the architect famous.

Swannanoa Valley Museum docents take turns digging for projectile points and pot sherds at Fort San Juan in Burke County.

Examples of the internationally renowned architect’s craftsmanship grace many of America’s most famous Beaux-Arts landmarks, including the Boston Public Library, Grand Central Terminal, Grant’s Tomb, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian, and the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the Biltmore Estate and Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville. The exhibit will document Guastavino’s work along with his local accomplishments and presence and will feature items in the museum’s collection, including the bell from atop the Spanish Castle, Mrs. Guastavino’s black mourning cape, and bricks and tiles stamped with Guastavino’s logo.

The museum, with its engaging exhibits and dynamic programming, is part of the cultural heart of downtown Black Mountain. With a small staff, the museum relies upon volunteers. More than 60 volunteers are the lifeblood of the museum, and more volunteers are always needed.

During the open season, the museum is almost entirely staffed by volunteer docents.

“The museum has been able to continue to operate in the black every year due to the dedication of our volunteers," museum director Anne Chesky Smith said. "Our docents, who staff the museum on a daily basis, truly are the face of our museum.”

Docents greet visitors, introduce the history of the Swannanoa Valley to visitors, track attendance, interpret exhibits, sell gift shop merchandise and open and close the museum daily. Docents also help with special events, such as school field trips, book signings and demonstrations held at the museum.

"Each and every volunteer is an ambassador of history for visitors and locals alike,” Chesky Smith said. Many docents serve the museum every week. Shifts are 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 1:30-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Each new docent receives on-the-job training on their first day of service.

Volunteering with the museum allows docents to learn about Black Mountain and the surrounding region, while serving the community and forging connections with fellow community members. While some docents are native Western North Carolinians, many are newcomers to the region.

The March 30 orientation will provide an overview of docent duties and allow volunteers to sign up for docent shifts beginning in September. The events will take place at the museum, 223 W. State St., downtown Black Mountain. Coffee and refreshments will be served. New and returning docents and volunteers are invited to attend.

Attendance is not required to become a volunteer, and interested candidates are encouraged to contact the museum directly. For more, email or call 669-9566 or 669-0068.