Stories from the Archives

Glenbow's Archives hold thousands of stories of western Canadian lives and events. In November 2013, with the generous assistance of The Calgary Foundation, we invited retired Calgarians to explore some of our little-used research files and to prepare articles about what they discovered. This was a pilot project aimed at involving more people in the community telling community stories using Glenbow's resources.

Being a Docent

by Chandra Jadav


Exhibition catalogue and installation shot, The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples, Glenbow Museum, July 1-November 6, 1988. (Glenbow Library collection; Glenbow Museum collection)

The word docent has its root in Latin, docere, meaning to teach. Used mostly in a museum context, it defines an individual who volunteers his or her time as an interpreter or guide and conducts research utilizing the resources of the institution.

Being in a docent program, one gets a unique opportunity to seek knowledge of a subject of interest, not necessarily concerning one's career, pursuing it on one's own term. In other words docentship is to get informed informally.


Collectable pin produced by the Glenbow Museum to commemorate The Spirit Sings exhibition, 1988. (Author's personal collection)

The Glenbow Museum, with its extensive and significant archival material, is in a unique position to offer information and knowledge on a variety of subjects such as the political, social and cultural aspects of First Nations, mineralogy, ranching, oil and gas, railways, pristine locations. And on traditions other than the predominant Judeo-Christian.

Before I joined the Museum as a volunteer in 1992, I recollect the exciting time during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Beside the Games, there were lots of social and cultural activities. Glenbow had The Spirit Sings exhibition celebrating the cultural and social life of First Nations peoples. An event that became very popular during that time was collecting and exchanging commemorative pins. A temporary tent was erected just outside Glenbow on 8th Ave. and it was the place to visit. The Museum had issued several pins relating to the exhibition and they became highly sought-after items.

The resource value of the Museum in relation to the community at large can be summarized by quoting from a note received by the Open Minds - Museum School program at the Glenbow Museum Partnership Program for sponsored by Chevron Canada Resources:

I became very emotional behind the wheel of my car and found myself, to my surprise, weeping as I realized what a profound experience this week (at the Glenbow Museum) has been for me myself and my students. My students really started to look and think. Their artwork, writing and love for learning has moved into a new level! it has been remarkable watching these children look deeper and deeper into art, into object, and above all, into themselves, to find a love for learning and understanding, a gift that they had forgotten existed. It has been a privilege for me to come to know them this way!

I always believed I had great respect for children and what they have inside them. What made me weep is the realization that I did not know them at all. I have more love and respect for any one of those children now than I ever thought I could! I had no idea Robbie's artistic gift ran so deep, or that Mark and his dad loved each other like that. I didn't know Chris could draw. I could go on and on and mentioning each child by name.You have given my students and I, a remarkable gift this week. Thank you from bottom of my heart!, a gift that I have found it as a teacher once again [1]

Shiva Bhairava, India, Gurjara Period, 10th Century A.D. Sandstone carving in the Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia gallery, Glenbow Museum, and a pencil sketch by the author, ca. 1995. (Glenbow Museum collection and author's personal collection)

In my case, the idea started with my desire to volunteer my time, engaged in subjects of my interest, art in general and more specifically that created by people of the past what many historians classifed as non-Western or Primitive Art. After undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery it was suggested that I adopt a slower pace of life and prepare myself for retirement. I was cautioned that retired life can be stressful if the mind is not kept active. Volunteering at the Glenbow Museum became an obvious choice. It provided an opportunity to expand my knowledge in a field I was interested in.

The Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia gallery at Glenbow came into existence in 1988. Originally called Art in the Religions and Myths of Mankind: The Bumper Development Corporation Ltd. Gallery, it exhibits artifacts that are from the private collection of the Borden family that have been loaned or gifted to the Museum.


Installation shots, Voices of Southeast Asia: Seven Stories, Glenbow Museum, July 1-September 25, 2005. (Glenbow Museum collection)

In the "Message from the Collector" displayed in the gallery, Mr. Robert Borden states that it is his intention that the artifacts be viewed simply as art objects, for their sophistication, grace and beauty, and to be mindful that the objects are created by artists living many, many centuries ago. At another level, they represent expressions of ideas, principles and value, a spiritual experience for some. To understand it in its original context demands further exploration. Appropriate reference materials are made available in the gallery. It is through understanding others perspectives of same concept that unnecessary anxiety can be made manageable.

My introduction to the docent program came accidentally when I started volunteering. The Art of Asia gallery fascinated me for the scope of its content, exquisite presentation and the tranquility it offered. The curator, Colleen Millard and docent trainer Lee Tymchuk were knowledgeable, encouraging and helpful. At that point in time my knowledge of the subject was very superficial, although I was brought up in the traditions. To talk about it and interpret it demanded scholarship and understanding of its essence, which I found out to be very rewarding.


Cover of book donated by author: Rabindranath Tagore: Collection of Essays edited by Ratan Parimoo, 1989. (Glenbow Library collection)

Also rewarding were several recognitions. I had an opportunity to be a presenter on behalf of the Museum at a National Docent Symposium held at the Art Museum of Philadelphia in 1999.

Another advantage of being a volunteer and docent was to be part of events like the Mysteries of Egypt exhibition (2000), and to attend introductory previews of exhibitions like Variations: Holgate, Group of Seven and Contemporaries, which included the work of Tom Thomson (2006), and talks and tours by the curators. Or in some cases, talks by artists such as Jack Shadboldt, and to be able to relate to them and understand what it takes to create work of art.

An exhibition entitled Seven Stories: Voices of Southeast Asia (2005) was of particular importance to me. It depicted the lives and struggle of seven individuals from Southeast Asian communities of Calgary, and celebrated their cultural adjustment and contribution they are making through entrepreneurship, scholarship and citizenship. The exhibition was a part of Glenbow's initiative to be inclusive, by establishing the Asian Advisory Committee. It was my honour to be part of the group that formulated the terms of reference, selected representatives from Asian communities and organized events relating to their customs and traditions.

Resource material at the Glenbow Library and Archives is second to none. And who knows who you meet there, like I did, when I was researching. I had the pleasure of sharing my table with the late Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta from 1971 to 1985, who was doing his research work there. I was researching about a Sikh rancher, Hari Singh and his family, who many years ago settled in South Calgary and who owned a large stretch of land, a large herd of cattle and employed many cowboys.

I felt proud when the Glenbow Library accepted some research material I submitted. Among the items was a book of sketches and doodles of West Coast art in the Haida tradition by Rabindernath Tagore, an artist and poet of India who was also a Nobel Prize laureate.

So, through docent/volunteer work, I gave whatever time I could spare. In return I gained a lot in knowledge regarding ancient history and social anthropology, and experience, specifically skill in expressing through art and writing.


Feedback from teacher, Open Minds - Museum School program, Glenbow Museum, ca. 1995.

About the author

Chandra Jadav was born in Tanzania in 1937. He studied architecture in the U.K. before coming to Canada in 1968, and to Calgary in 1978 as Head of the Architectural Section of Parks Canada, Western Region. During his training as an architect, he was fascinated by the art and architecture of people of the past and their ingenuity, creativity and ability to communicate through art and writing. In fact, "Communication 101" was the subject of his presentation to the National Docent Symposium hosted by the Art Museum of Philadelphia in 1999, where he represented the Glenbow Museum. This was also where he developed his interest in the role of the docent. He heard about the Stories from the Archives project while volunteering in the Art of Asia gallery at the Glenbow Museum.

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