A Day at the Museum: Alexandria Docents Bring Local History to Life

By: Maggie Jo Buchanan

Many residents of the greater Washington, DC metropolitan area have visited Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and – in between enjoying delicious food and drink, along with some shopping – daydreamed about what life must have been like hundreds of years ago while walking the quaint cobblestone streets. For the volunteers of the Historic Alexandria Docents Committee, who work to support the historic sites that span the historic district, Museum Day is a chance to help transform wondering into learning. 

A critical part of the tourism of the city of Alexandria, the JLW docents support well-known destinations such as the Carlyle House, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, Lee-Fendall House, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, and Mount Vernon.   

Overall, the docents have helped to support a wide variety of programing over the decades they’ve been affiliated with JLW – seasonal candlelight tours, holiday events, Girl Scout activities – training volunteers to help visitors understand the unique history of each location while helping what can seem like a far distant past come to life. Spearheaded by Smithsonian Magazine, Museum Day “represents a national commitment to access, equality and inclusion” by providing  locals and tourists alike the ability to visit many of the area’s museums and cultural institutions free of charge. 

Including participation from museums, zoos, and cultural centers from across the country, Museum Day took place on September 17, 2022. The theme for the event was American Experience and certainly it doesn’t get any more American than the five Alexandria museums that participated: Freedom House Museum, The Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum, Lee-Fendall House Museum & Garden, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

And, sure, exhibits such as the showcases on priceless gems or dinosaurs that can be viewed at the National History Museum are tremendous. But there is something special about actually being able to sit down in a place such as Gadsby’s Tavern after learning about the history of the building and having a meal. In operation since 1770, when you have a meal there, you can look to your left and right and know with certainty that just steps away from you – albeit hundreds of years as well – historic figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were enjoying a meal in the same setting as you. 

That type of intimate experience with history is what can help connect our own reality with those from the past – and which makes volunteering with the Historic Alexandria Docents such a rewarding experience.