A little over six months ago we lost the matriarch of our family, my grandmother Virginia, to breast cancer. In addition to being a stoic and beloved wife, mother, and grandmother she was also a treasured docent at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Upon her passing the museum contacted me to pen a tribute piece to her. What flowed was not only an homage to her but also an appreciation for docents who help us define and examine our own values by more deeply understanding why we are drawn to certain works of art.
My grandmother instilled me with a love of many wonderful things- antiques, eastern art, classical music, crafting the perfect menu, gardening- but her most precious legacy was her gift of questioning. Questioning why we are drawn to certain things and why we create what we do.
This line of questioning can not only be applied to precious works in a museum, but also to our needlepoint projects. Why we are continuously drawn to certain subjects like cheeky sayings or why the Silk & Ivory color Begonia has steadfastly remained my favorite for over a decade. Although I feel vulnerable sharing such a personal piece, I want to share this special part of my grandmother with you. Below is a copy of the article and it is also linked here.
Upon my grandmother’s death, I scoured the internet for traces of her that would make her passing feel temporary. Nestled among government records was a link to Instagram. I curiously clicked it, unsure of who, other than family, would post about my grandmother. A black-and-white photograph appeared with my grandmother emphatically but elegantly gesturing to a Peabody Essex Museum visitor, lanyards covering her arm, the works of Georgia O’Keeffe enveloping her petite frame and perfectly coiffed hair. Her work as a volunteer docent (PEM Guide), memorialized by a stranger who appreciated her tour and recognized her passion. The post read: “Thank you Virginia Morbeck for your outstanding tour of American artist #georgiaokeeffe exhibit today.”
Over professional portraits and youthful captures, this was the photo we chose for her obituary -- my grandmother, Virginia Morbeck, following her vocation. Although she was a native San Franciscan, my grandmother possessed the dependable New England qualities of productivity and a deep appreciation for education. Her continuous pursuit of knowledge and passion for sharing it led her to become a volunteer docent at PEM. She naturally fulfilled the requirements as she had always applauded and promoted the works of artists, cultural icons and scientists in her private life. Over the years, and after many visits to PEM, my grandmother would imprint these same values on me.
Up until she was ill, we would stroll the galleries, pop through the exhibits and explore early American works and Eastern imports. She would practice her tours with her loved ones, peppering in anecdotes as my grandfather, mother and I hobbled along, unable to keep up with her enthusiastic energy. She would greet the guards as we entered each room, asking about their families. When I found a painting or artifact enchanting, my grandmother would quietly edge closer and calmly ask why I lingered, why I was drawn in.
“I feel calm” I would answer, or “I love the colors, they are invigorating.” Her questions gently become more specific, pushing me to explore why certain colors, movement or subject matter resonated. Over the years this line of questioning unearthed a deeper clarity of why I am drawn to certain works of art and how those works reflect my values. Through my love of specific artwork and with the guidance of my grandmother, I uncovered my core values of beauty, courage and authenticity while the artwork my grandmother loved reflected her values of exploration, self-improvement and elegance.
My grandmother shaped the way I view the world and PEM helped shape the way she viewed the world. As a docent she was taught not only to inform, but also to question, to understand the how and why, the history and context behind a work of art and the values that motivate an artist to create, a writer to communicate and a scientist to explore.
Although her years as a teacher fueled her curiosity, it was ultimately her time as a docent that cemented her belief in the importance of examining the motivations behind actions and creations. A docent’s job is not only to share knowledge, but also to help us apply that knowledge to our own lives. To teach us to gently question in a way that uncovers truths about ourselves and our values because ultimately it is our values that guide our lives. My grandmother’s values led her to PEM, which shaped her legacy as a teacher and an explorer.
I am grateful that she had this opportunity, and I know I am not the only one. A photograph captured by a random follower on Instagram validates the impact she had and her love of the museum.